22 August, 2017

Make better decisions

Make better decisions

Image Credits: Forumlanone

Making decisions is something we, as humans, do every day. Sometimes we get them right and other times we don’t. So why do we get decisions wrong and why do others, seemingly have ‘good luck’ and make good decisions most of the time.

According to some recent research (1), an adult makes up to 35,000 decisions per day. Many of these decisions are minor impulsive type decisions (we make over 200 decisions each day about food choices), but others, especially for leaders are critically important ones.

So, if we are consciously and unconsciously making up to 35,000 decisions per day, how do we make sure that the majority are right? Like all things, it comes down to a process and your ability to follow that process, often at pace.

How we make decisions

But first, let’s look at how our brain makes decisions. Research (2) has shown that we assess decisions based on pattern recognition or emotional tags.

Pattern Recognition

Pattern recognition is where we take information from many parts of our brain, looking for previous experiences and familiar situations to apply to the situation in front of us. Sometimes, we think we see a familiar situation and make a decision, but our judgement is wrong, something is different to the pattern our brain expected occurs and a ‘poor decision’ is seen as the result.

Emotional Tagging

Emotional tagging is where our brain assesses the memories from our thoughts and experiences. It is that decision where people say, ‘go with what your heart is telling you’. This emotional tagging often clouds our judgement though, even if we are competent decision makers based on objective analysis.

Now most of the time, our brain makes good decisions based on previous recognition and emotional tagging. This is due to us having built up a degree of unconscious competence in daily life.

So how do we, as leaders, make critical decisions to ensure that what patterns we think we are seeing, or to ensure that our emotional tags are right.

How to make good decisions

In the military, there are 7 steps to make a decision (3).

  1. Receipt of Mission
  2. Mission Analysis
  3. Course of Action development
  4. Course of action analysis (WarGaming)
  5. Course of action comparison
  6. Course of action approval
  7. Orders

So how can we use this process outside of the military? Well, we actually use it already, every day, unconsciously on those really simple decisions.

For example, my daily challenge – getting out of bed before 7am. I know I have to get out of bed each day, and my six year old usually reminds me about 6.30am. There are a range of courses of action going through my head when he comes in – play asleep = get jumped on or yelled at to wake up; tell him to start getting ready for the day on his own = a mess in the kitchen; get out of bed earlier than I would like = less sleep for me. The analysis, comparison and approval follow quickly with me getting out of bed earlier than I would have liked!

But when it comes to those really important decisions, we often don’t follow a well thought out process. We get twisted in knots, agonizing over the situation and sometimes fail to make a decision, which either results in a lost opportunity or makes the situation worse.

Let’s look at these in detail, from a critical business decision perspective.

1. Receipt of Mission

A critical decision comes to your attention to be made. Firstly, just determine that this is a decision that you need to make, if not, delegate it to those within your team – but make sure they understand this process. Delegating decision making responsibilities empowers your team and maintains your ability to make the other 34,999 decisions you must make that day.

2. Mission Analysis

Understand what the decision is that needs to be made. Who are the stakeholders involved and what segment of your customers or target market will this decision affect? What is the timeline you have to make this decision?

3. Course of Action Development

Look at all the different possibilities to achieve the outcome (mission). There are many paths to take and some might be longer, but be better in the long run. Others might be a crazy path to take with high risks, but there could be elements of this plan to consider later.

4. Course of Action Analysis

Involve your team that is going to be responsible for implementing the plan once the decision is made. Play out each course of action from start to finish and pick holes in it. Wargaming is where there is a blue force (the good guys) and the red force (the bad guys). Each team is playing on the same course of action, with the red force trying to destroy the plan.

Do this in your team, where the red force can be the customer, your member, or even your most junior employees who will be affected. How will they react to your decisions and what impact will it have on your plan?

5. Course of Action comparison

Assess each course of action, its strengths and weaknesses, and develop one strong course of action. Through this process, you will also have some contingency plans for when that angry customer comes back at you or that member complains, you know what your response or action is going to be.

If you do this for each course of action, even the high-risk ones, you will find that your final plan becomes stronger and you will have a combination of elements from across your original courses of action.

6. Course of action approval

The approval can be made in three ways (4):

  • Command – The leader makes the final decision with no consultation of the team. Often this is needed when immediate guidance is needed or in crisis situations.
  • Collaborative – Where the team gathers the feedback on the final plan before making sure that everyone is happy to proceed. This can be dangerous, as often is business not everyone will be happy, so things can get stalled or decisions that need to be made are not.
  • Consensus – A democratic vote where the majority rules. This can often be used where the decision affects the team as a whole, rather than a critical business decision.

In the military, a command decision is the most common, but, the previous five steps were almost always conducted – either by the leader or with their command group. This provided evidence based decisions, and by default some level of collaboration and consensus.

7. Orders

Once a decision has been made on the course of action then empower your team to carry out the task (mission). Give them clear directions on what is expected and what they may encounter along the way (from your course of action analysis). Let them know what you as a leader are expecting from them in terms of checking in and reporting back to you.

Once you have made a decision, then act on it. But remember, no plan lasts contact with the enemy, so be prepared to reassess the situation, or again, empower your team to make decisions based on your course of action analysis!

The making of decisions is something, as leaders, we cannot avoid. I just encourage you to follow a process that ensures you are making evidence based decisions on those really important ones.

Want More?

If you want more information on how I help leaders make better decisions, then please get in touch.


(1) Why good leaders make bad decisions

(2) The great choices of strategic leaders

(3) Military Decision Making Process

(4) Ways leaders make decisions

© 2019 Paul Mead