Decision-Making Fast and Slow

Decision-Making Fast and SlowDecisions can be relatively inconsequential, but when they are tough ones, one of the complexities leaders face is how quickly they need to make the decision.  As illustrated in last week’s blog post about James Comey’s many decision points, sometimes you have more time to develop good assessments, and other times you don’t.

The choice about how much time to spend before announcing a decision is a crucial one.  Making a rapid call can subject you to questions about thoroughness or impetuousness, while taking more time can be seen as foot-dragging, indecisiveness, or even worse, a desire to conceal.

How do you figure out how fast you need to make a decision?  While always a balancing act, here are some considerations to help you determine when you may need to speed up or slow down your decision-making process.

Speed up your decision making when:

  • The issue at stake involves ethical questions. If you see a good chance ethics have been violated, make at least an interim decision.  You need to show you take seriously ethical breaches.
  • There’s a ‘social contract’ or common norm of human treatment that may be violated. Police departments face these decisions frequently lately, when officers are accused of violating social norms about justifiable application of force – and so did United Airlines leadership when they failed to take a rapid action in the face of a passenger forcibly removed from a flight.  Rapid decisions send the message that there is recognition of a social norm underlying actions.
  • The firm’s reputation is on the line. The first two of these reputational considerations are outlined above, but others come into play as well.  What happens if a simple mistake could cause an outsize reaction?  Or you don’t have all the facts, but something bad is happening?  Business schools still quote as a great example of decision-making Johnson & Johnson’s rapid 1982 choice to pull Tylenol from pharmacy shelves when it was suspected of causing deaths.
  • You have 80% of the information needed to make a decision. While not an iron-clad rule, the good old Pareto Principle is a great admonition to not linger over decisions.  Very often, we try to get a perfect decision – not a realistic expectation in any event.
  • The consensus is strong, even among normally dissenting voices. If you are reaching out to a diverse set of stakeholders, and getting pretty much the same input, it’s likely time to move forward.

Slow down your decision-making when:

  • The stakes are moderate. If you can afford to take a little more time to get to a better decision, it is reasonable to do so – keeping in mind, though, the Pareto Principle.  Make a judgment about whether you can get a 20% better decision by getting the additional 20% more information.
  • A particular set of information could significantly change the decision. Good decision-makers always ask the question, “What would I do differently if I had this information?”  If the answer is, ‘not much’, move ahead and make the decision.  But if the answer shows a substantively different decision could be made, consider taking the time needed to get the additional information.
  • Someone’s reputation may be seriously impaired. You may still need to favor a rapid decision in this case, particularly if there’s an ethical issue at stake, but in general, if your quick decision could cause irreparable harm or questioning of someone’s reputation, it is worth making sure you have been careful in your fact-gathering and decision-making process.
  • You haven’t heard the outliers. Maybe you have all yeses, but if you haven’t yet taken the time to consult stakeholders who might be unduly affected, or those who typically raise a different voice from the yes-men, it is worth your while to be sure you’ve considered these viewpoints before being blind-sided by them later.

Leadership guru John Maxwell reminds us why the choices about how fast or slow to make decisions is important.  “Inability to make decisions is one of the principal reasons executives fail. Deficiency in decision-making ranks much higher than lack of specific knowledge or technical know-how as an indicator of leadership failure.”  And a big part of judging someone’s ability to make decisions is the speed at which they make those decisions.  Make your choices judiciously about your speed of decision-making.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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