So many choices. Recently, I had the opportunity to work with a leader who stated that they felt completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of critical decisions they needed to make. This leader had moved into a higher-level role about a year prior and as expected, now had additional responsibilities.
This person took their job seriously and took the time to research each situation and explore all the options before making a final decision. In theory, this is a great approach to take. But for this leader, taking too much time to make decisions shifted this proactive approach into a state of urgent reactive situations. The desire to make the perfect decision led to indecision. Indecision caused routine decisions to become urgent as deadlines for action came due.
With new responsibilities, there were new pressures; and the pressure of making choices that would have a big impact on a lot of people created a fear of making the wrong decision. As we delved deeper into this leader’s predicament, we identified two areas of struggle. The first was that this leader did not have a planned process for making decisions. As a result, the second was that they didn’t have an easy way to solicit feedback from others when needed.
To address these two issues, we developed a standard way to approach decision making and included in that approach a way to involve others who might provide valuable insight. Of course, there is no single strategy that will work for every decision and every situation. But having a go to approach that can be used the majority of the time reduces stress while increasing consistency of the decisions.
“When you choose an action, you choose the consequences of that action. When you desire a consequence, you had damned well better take the action that would create it.” Lois McMaster Bujold
The Challenge of Choices
One of the greatest challenges we face in making business decisions is forecasting all the possible consequences of our actions. What will the short-term and long-term impacts be? What are some of the unintended consequences, and how can we mitigate them? So often it is easier to just put it off and say that we will deal with it when it becomes an issue. But is the potential long-term damage worth the short-term benefits?
No one can predict everything that might result from a decision. But how often do we make impactful decisions in a careless manner? I know I have made countless decisions in my personal and professional life that were not well thought out. And not every decision needs a thorough examination. Deciding what to wear does not usually have a lasting impact that requires any thoughtful analysis. Deciding the strategic goals for a business does have a lasting impact and warrants some time and energy.
In order to make well thought out decisions in a comprehensive yet efficient manner, we need a planned process. This process needs to be easily understood, identify multiple options and their impact, and allow multiple people to be involved.
One Solution for Choices
One of my favorite tools for pro-actively thinking about the consequences of a decision is mind mapping. If you are not familiar with this technique, you start by drawing a circle in the middle of a paper and putting the issue at hand in the circle. From the center circle, you draw a line and make a new circle, representing one possible action you could take to address that issue. Continue to draw lines and action circles from the issue circle until you have exhausted your ideas for possible action.
Then from each action, draw lines and circles to indicate all the possible outcomes (positive and negative) from taking that action. Drawing additional secondary and tertiary outcome circles from the previous outcomes may be needed. Continue this process until all the possible outcomes for each action have been explored. There’s a great resource online called How to Mind Map that you can check out if you need a visual.
I like this process because it provides a visual representation, a way to put all my thoughts on the topic in one place. It can be a great collaborative tool too, as it’s easy for other people to see your thoughts and add to the diagram to incorporate their input. It’s a great way to map potential outcomes and consequences that I may not have thought about when simply generating the possible actions.
Think About This
What would happen if we made decisions based on future outcomes rather than only the immediate need? This is obviously not the right tool for urgent decisions like whether you should call the fire department when you’re in a burning building. But decisions that are strategic in nature or related to policy need this kind of forethought.
Too often we confuse urgent with important, and we make important decisions urgently. Or in the case of the leader I worked with, use uncertainty as an excuse for not dealing with important decisions until they become urgent. Working from a point of urgency does not always help us in the long run. I don’t know about you, but I want to be around for the long run. I want to feel confident in my choices and not worry about the unintended consequences I have created from making important decisions urgently.
Putting It All Together
Differentiating between important and urgent is not always an easy task. Neither is taking that moment of breath before making a decision to think through the possible effects of your actions. Learning how to make decisions proactively rather than reactively takes a decision-making plan and practice. Developing your decision-making skills is essential for being proactive. Establishing a routine for making important decisions is a key habit all leaders need to form.
I challenge you to practice separating important decisions from urgent decisions. Are you being thoughtful about the important decisions in your life? Do you examining all the possible actions AND their potential consequences? Are you taking the time to process important decisions, or are you procrastinating until they become urgent? I challenge you to embrace the opportunity to make important decisions in a way that allows you to enjoy the fruits of your success in the future.
Revised January 2022. Originally published under The OD Pro in October 2019.