Decisions. We make hundreds of them every day, most without even realizing it. And while most of those decisions are relatively mundane with little impact, we are often tasked with making quick decisions- especially in the context of work, that can often have big consequences and yet surprisingly give little thought into how we approach the way we make decisions.
So, in this article, I’m hoping to impart a few approaches that I have taken in my career to helping me make decisions more effectively. This doesn’t mean that you will make the perfect decision every time, but it will help you to make your decisions more efficiently and effectively and increase the chances that you make the right considerations when making decisions. Which, if anything, should at least increase your satisfaction with the critical decisions you make on a daily basis.
Be gracious with yourself
Now, it's perhaps best to start by saying that no matter how careful you are in making decisions, there are often situations where there are still no clear right answers and we still make decisions that we can end up regretting. There is no exact science to this and we should rather look at each scenario as a learning opportunity. So my advice when it comes to making decisions is to not be too hard on yourself to make the right decisions all the time. Rather, be gracious and look to learn as you go along.
Now with the below steps, there is no specific order in which to follow these, though I have tried to place some of the steps in a reasonable order, you will need to be flexible in how you approach them as different problems may require you to explore different aspects first to help you in your decision-making process.
Identify the Issue
This might sound like an obvious point, but before decisions are made we need to ensure we understand the root of the problem. It’s easy to see an immediate mistake and want to fix the problem, but it’s helpful to make sure you have properly identified the root cause of an issue before making your decisions around it.
Now, some issues – especially production-related critical defects – may require immediate decision making to rectify, which should often entail bringing up an error message reverting changes, testing, and restoring, as best you can. However, once things have stabilized, take the opportunity to fully understand the problem and make the right decisions that can help to mitigate the issue in the future.
Understand the Context
These steps I’m prescribing are mostly aimed towards critical decision-making and not the rudimentary daily decisions that shouldn’t require too much though. However, I have often found that even when t comes to making important decisions at work that we can overstate or under-evaluate the importance, and interpreting that context correctly is the most important criteria to acting on a decision correctly.
Too often we tend to overact and think certain decisions are important when the reality is we can be patient with the situation and our capabilities and allow time, or others around us to assist in this process. We panic to make decisions now when it may not be necessary and freeing ourselves of that immediate responsibility can actually provide clarity of thought and guide others to make even better decisions than we were ever capable of.
And yes, it’s true that at other times we can also be faced with decisions that are more important than we realize once we understand the impact. It's at those times that we need to ask ourselves if we really should be making those decisions. Should it rather be escalated? Yes, we might want to come across as proactive problem-solvers, but those with more authority would prefer you bring the final decision (and perhaps your proposed solution) to them. And if you are still the right person to make the decision, make sure you respond to it timeously and understand the impact of the decision or the different options available.
And in software, it may be easy to evaluate solutions based on the technical risks and what may be the fastest fix, but we also need to consider the people aspect of the decision and whether what we are deciding is best for the teams or the business long-term.
We’ve all heard of analysis paralysis and when it comes to decision-making this is often the case. While we want to be sure of ourselves and evaluate as much information as we can, sometimes the best solutions are the most obvious ones that come to mind and we shouldn’t be afraid to make the most obvious decision in front of us. Especially if experience or data is leading there as well.
It’s important to remember that unless a person’s life or the financial well-being of the company is at stake, that decision can be altered and changed, and often taking a chosen path is better than none at all.
Draw on experience
Decision-making so often where experience can often come in. The more you have worked in certain areas the more you have likely faced problems and learned how to solve them and you should utilize that experience to quickly identify what could be the right solutions to a specific problem or at least what may not be viable solutions.
It’s also not something that you have to possess yourself, as you should definitely leverage the experience around you and if a person has critical expertise in an area that you are less familiar with – rather empower them to help make the right decision.
I’ve already mentioned getting advice from those around you in the above steps, but if you need it to be more implicitly stated then here it is. And the bigger the decision, often the greater amount of insight we need to get. Though, it’s more than just seeking help from those around you, but also trying to gain insight from what data is available to you. Have we properly analyzed what the data or log files are telling us and does that change the way we collectively view the problem and the respective proposed solutions?
And in this time of remote working where we are often no longer co-located, it’s advisable to set up a virtual call that all stakeholders join to help discuss the different data and perspectives on offer to help lead the team towards making the right decision.
If there was only one viable option, making decisions would be easy. But in truth, there are often many different directions in which to go and it’s important that you evaluate the different alternatives. You need to understand the effort and impact of the different decisions that could be made to help in choosing the right approach. This is also where understanding the context and identifying the issue comes in handy, as it will help to understand which decision will solve the problem best or perhaps have the least impact given the particular context.
It’s important in saying this though that you can’t spend too much time evaluating every possible alternative. In any decision, there will normally be a few likely routes that will quickly surface based on what all the information, data, and experience tells your team and those are the ones that are worth pursuing and evaluating further.
Often in fully understanding the efforts and impacts of different options, it will become easy to isolate choices down to just one or two possible options, making the decision-making far easier.
Make the Decision
Another point that sounds a little silly in an article about making decisions. But at some point in time, a decision will need to be made. You can evaluate and get advice all you want, but we need to ensure that we are prepared to lead down a path. And if the time calls for it, it might also be a decision you may not be wholly comfortable making as you perhaps don’t understand the best approaches. Still, a path needs to be chosen (even if it’s to do nothing and wait) and you should be prepared to provide that leadership if you are in such a position. And remember, there is nothing stopping us from altering our decisions should we realize a chosen path is not working or we have further data that allows us to see things differently.
A critical thing after making a decision is to then ensure it is communicated clearly and to the right audience. Does anything need to be communicated to clients? Which stakeholders need to be made aware of the decision? Does the team clearly understand what needs to get done and who is responsible for what?
It’s also important that even though we have discussions verbally, that you communicate all actions or impacts in written form, preferably over email or a chosen messaging channel. In these communications its important to focus on the solution, what needs to be done to rectify the solution and the timelines, responsibilities, and impacts of those decisions.
Allow formal communication on the root causes of any issue to rather come at a later stage once the situation has calmed down and a proper root cause analysis conducted to fully understand the reasons behind a particular issue. Too often we can try and overcommunicate our decisions and provide all the relevant information when it is not necessary.
This is arguably one of the most important aspects of our human decision making process and yet one we probably do the least. We too often make decisions, implement them and then move on, without properly evaluating the impact the decisions we make have had. And importantly, if there is something that could’ve been done better. And it’s that analysis of the decisions we make and understating their full implications that allows us to prepare to make better decisions in the future. We can’t get it right every time, but we can learn to at least improve our chances.
Having an organizational or personal blueprint to help when making critical decisions can help. While it's true that many situations are unique, there is also a lot of similarities between some of the decisions that need to get made and how best to prioritize them. And this is where lessons learned from the past or certain legislative or moral guides come in handy as it allows you to formula a blueprint to follow in future and ensure that consistent approaches to certain decision are made in the future.
Yes, there are certain personal decisions where blueprints can’t apply ,but then a person should have their own moral system that helps them to best evaluate what is most important to them and use that as a reference point to help make these decisions. When we have these things well laid out for us, it may not always lead to the 100% best outcome, but it does improve the efficiency of the decision making. If things don’t work out, then the blueprint can simply be reevaluated and updated with how to perhaps handle it better in the future so that future decision-makers can learn from them.
Perhaps nothing makes a bigger impact in our careers than the individual decisions we make on a daily basis. The more effective we can get at making decisions, the more we can grow and help lead our lives and careers in the direction we most desire.