Have you ever worked on a project that you felt was doomed to fail? Or maybe you worked on an initiative that felt frivolous or low-impact for the organization. It’s hard to feel really motivated in such circumstances. Hard to get your team excited. Hard to feel like your contribution is really going to move the needle. Hard to understand why leadership chose to go in that direction. Why do companies so often seem to invest time and money on the wrong stuff?
It comes down to how companies and company leadership make decisions. Poor decision making isn’t unusual in the private or professional space. To understand why and avoid making or contributing to bad decisions in our sphere of influence, let’s look at what contributes to low-quality decision making.
The human brain is wired to make quick decisions based on incomplete data. When we’re in a dangerous or survival mode, we don’t have the luxury of time to evaluate our options. Unfortunately, when we imagine every situation is of life-or-death urgency, we fail to take a reasoned approach and validate our assumptions, which can lead to sloppy decision making. If you embrace a “fast-paced, ever-changing, reactive” company culture, you short-cut the analysis process. Slow down, breathe, and give yourself a chance to think more deeply about the issues.
I see people do this all the time in so many contexts, and it drives me wild. A perfect example of this is the unsolicited advice friends are so eager to give. If I post “my horse is limping today” on social media, I’m sure to get recommendations for cold compresses, horse massage, and CBD supplements when the problem is that my horse has incurable arthritis and needs pain relief. Invalid comparisons are related to mental shortcuts. We want to apply other situations we’re familiar with to a new problem. “At my last job we did this and it worked well,” is another comparison we’re fond of making. Without deeper analysis to validate that the situational similarities are more than skin deep, we could be making some really dangerous assumptions.
We might like to tease that colleague who always points out the downside, but actually we could use more of that in our decision-making. Most of us tend towards optimism. Every morning we assume our hot water heater will work, our car will start, and our computer will boot. If we’re wrong, it’s usually an inconvenience at worst. I’ve spent a lot of time backpacking in the wilderness with my spouse. He always insists on packing backup water purification, extra meals, and a full first aid kit. I hate carrying the extra weight, but every single trip has had at least one unplanned emergency when we’ve used some of that equipment. His pessimism might make my pack 5 pounds heavier but it’s probably saved my life. We need to spend more time thinking “what could go wrong and how could I mitigate the risk” in our business decision making processes, because those unaddressed risks could be a lot worse than having to take a cold shower or skip the morning coffee.
Inability to Admit Mistakes
Some organizations punish those who make mistakes or shame people who admit to mistakes. This is a tragic error. Refusal to confess and repair mistakes is a narcissistic personality trait and not admirable. Being able to see when something is going wrong, a project is headed off course, or a goal is not within reach means that you can adjust course or make the choice to cancel a project BEFORE it becomes a massive problem. Decision making isn’t a one-and-done activity. It’s a process of constant learning, re-evaluation, and adaptation. But you can’t learn if you can’t admit something has gone wrong or that the circumstances have changed enough to require a recalibration. Instead of assigning blame when something goes off the rails, the healthier approach is “okay, so now what is the best way to move forward?”
Fear of Conflict
Most people don’t like conflict. We avoid it in our private and public lives. Getting along feels a lot better. However, there are healthy ways to disagree and to allow for disagreement to improve decision making. A tool that I’ve found to be very useful is to start by stating the problem. If everyone agrees, yes, that is the problem we have to deal with, then you can be a team working on the problem instead of a bunch of people arguing (or avoiding argument). Put the problem on one side of the table and your team on the other side of the table. Now all of your conflicting ideas are really just different flavors of problem solving, not a fight. If you can’t agree on what the problem is, you have to work backwards until you find that common ground to start from.
There are so many ways that unhealthy power dynamics can manifest in an organization. “Because I said so” is a terrible way to manage a family or a business. Decision-making should be participatory and decisions should be made at the lowest level possible. Remember that just because someone makes a different decision than you would have made doesn’t make it wrong or bad. If my child decides to wear a purple polka-dotted shirt with green striped pants and mis-matched socks to school, it might make my eyes ache but it really won’t harm anyone. And when I do need to dictate choices (you WILL wear a helmet when you ride your horse), my guidance will be more acceptable because I’m not a micro-manager. Sometimes decisions come down to one person or a small group having to select between competing options. Be transparent about your decision making and be prepared to explain why you made the choice – it will help your team to understand and supports a cooperative, collaborative environment.
When tough decisions need to be made, we recommend going back to basics with visual models such as a Business Objectives Model or an Objective Chain or a Root Cause Diagram to support healthy, objective decision-making processes. Just going through the collaboration of building these models can remove a lot of the fog and drama.