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How to Make Decisions Like a Multi-Billion Dollar Corporation
Our teams make decisions all day long — sometimes as individuals, sometimes as small groups, sometimes as a unit. These decisions range from the truly mundane — what to order for lunch — to the momentous — whether to eliminate an entire division. One of the problems is that we use the same process for our decisions, regardless of gravity: some combination of discussion, followed by verbal consensus, with one or two people then assigned to execute. Major decisions are a source of stress, and sometimes create internal conflict, so it’s not surprising that we try to rush through them in order to minimize the unpleasantries of the process.
For their most expensive decisions, executives at best-in-class corporations enlist outside help to provide guardrails around the deliberation. While this help may come in the form of costly external contractors, there’s no fundamental difference between the principles of good decision making that such corporations seek to apply.
The effort to arrive at a high-quality decision involves the same general steps and components regardless of whether it’s a personal or a professional decision
At root, the effort to arrive at a high-quality decision involves the same general steps and components regardless of whether it’s a personal or a professional decision, and regardless of the size of the team involved. I’d like to share an overview of one popular executive framework for decision-making, and explore how it can be applied to your teams, whatever your budget.
To demonstrate this, let’s start with two questions:
#1 What was the most important decision your team made last quarter?
This could have been a strategic decision, a budgetary decision, or a personnel decision. Try to recall the details: the options you considered, the voices at the table, and the process of reaching that decision.
#2 Was it a good decision?
Most people don’t know how to answer that question. We tend to evaluate our decisions in terms of the outcomes. Did we end up in the place we wanted to end up? It’s hard to argue with outcomes. The problem is that aspects of any outcome lie beyond our control. Your team might have made an excellent decision, with a terrible outcome. Or, it might have been a poor decision, with a great outcome.
So let’s ask that again: Was it a good decision?
Decision scientists from diverse backgrounds and disciplines including economics, psychology, cognitive science, and statistics, want to help you answer that question. In practice, some of their best thinking and efforts go to help multi-billion-dollar organizations who can afford their expertise. For these companies, a decision about an investment of a few hundred million dollars must be as sound as humanly possible. It can’t reflect the biases of the decision-makers. It can’t veer from each company’s core mission and values. They invest in analysts to help collect relevant information, and to model scenarios. But they also invest in consultants who can help them shore up the quality of the decision itself.
The field of decision quality (DQ) is about 50 years old and seeks to practically apply the findings of decision science to guide us through complex choices. Decision quality consultants and analysts can shepherd major corporate decisions. DQ has been broken down over the years into six basic steps:
Our brains operate according to various programs — “cognitive biases” — that may or may not have anything to do with getting us to a good outcome.
What is the decision being made? This is not always as straightforward as it seems. If your team’s key decision last quarter was a personnel one — say, hiring one person and not another – what was at stake in that decision? Each hire brings unique skills and qualities. In choosing one person over another, you may have been solving for a more fundamental gap in terms of the team’s abilities. Did you consider other ways of filling that gap? Perhaps the most important question to answer was how to shore up a specific skill set, and hiring may or may not have been the ideal way to do so.
Fully elaborating alternatives can help you refine the framing. Alternatives don’t need to seem equally viable when proposed. Exploring alternatives is a safe way to rule options in and out, without foreclosing on exciting possibilities prematurely. Encourage your team to think as creatively as possible at this stage.
As you flesh out alternatives and begin to weigh them, you’ll naturally start to figure out what pieces of information are missing. Itemize these gaps, then divide and conquer to fill them. Sometimes the missing piece is information about uncertainty. Perhaps in making that hire, you were unsure if one candidate could rise to meet greater levels of responsibility. What information could you use to narrow the uncertainty, or to better estimate the chances of success? Perhaps some of this information needs to come from other stakeholders, but may entail tricky conversations. How can you plan for these discussions to yield the information you need, without any undesired consequences?
Any human decision involves values. Intentionally bringing one’s own values into the conversation can swiftly unblock conversations about tradeoffs and desired outcomes. Major team and personal decisions can be an opportunity to refine those values as they are tested in real time. For personal decisions, understanding which values you wish to prioritize can produce greater calm and clarity around potentially stressful and emotional issues.
Some of the most groundbreaking work in decision science in the last 50 years has been in this category. It turns out that our brains operate according to various programs — “cognitive biases” — that may or may not have anything to do with getting us to a good outcome. You can think of these as winds which can easily help carry you both toward and away from your desired destination. You can’t effectively sail a ship without understanding which winds are blowing, and how strongly. Likewise, any decision made by a human or group of humans should be attuned to, and vigilant about, the biases that can interfere at both the individual and group levels with rational thinking.
Decisions are meaningless without a commitment to act. Teams need to collectively own their major decisions once they are made, and rally to execute, regardless of the choice that each individual might have preferred. Aligning around this commitment at the beginning of the process can be a helpful way to ensure collaboration at its end.
Coaches challenge you to find information you might have felt unready to pursue, and to hone in on the core values you want to drive the decision.
The decision making process is meant to sound clear, but it’s not easy. In fact, it’s incredibly difficult to apply the patient reasoning required to arrive at a high-quality decision, particularly if you lack the resources of a multi-billion-dollar corporation. Reading more about this topic is a great way to start. For example, you can explore the free online content offered by the Society of Decision Professionals or by Stanford’s Strategic Decisions Group.
One intermediate option to help you make better decisions is to work with a coach. Certified executive coaches with training in decision quality can help teams and individuals through each of the six steps in a disciplined way. They can ensure that you’re answering the highest value question on the table (framing), and push you to explore alternatives not cognitively available to you without an outside perspective. Coaches challenge you to find information you might have felt unready to pursue, and to hone in on the core values you want to drive the decision. Coaches also help hold you accountable for committing to the decision. In the area of reasoning, a coach with DQ training will have many dozens of cognitive biases in mind (there are hundreds!) as they hear your and your team’s thought process. They can bring these mental “winds” to your attention, so that you may correct for them in your reasoning.
Here’s an example: imagine a product marketing team developing a strategy for increasing sales on an unsuccessful product. The team’s leader has recently had lunch with a buyer who shared that she was uninterested in the product because it sounded too much like something she’d already purchased. The leader shares this with the team, who then seeks to address this market redundancy with their campaign. A seasoned coach would be able to point out the role of recency bias — overvaluing recently acquired information — in this strategy. The team’s campaign is not optimizing for a market, it’s optimizing for one buyer, and, even more specifically, for the opinion that buyer had expressed on one occasion. The coach can further open up the information gap for that team leader around the barriers to purchase for the broader customer base.
Reflecting back on that quarterly decision, ask yourself: Was it high quality? Were there any information gaps, or parts of the DQ process you missed? How could the decision have been better?
And, most importantly: How will you make your next major team decision a good one?
Original art by Theo Payne.