Friday, December 11, 2009

First Time - Part 9: Making Decisions

This is part 9 in a series of short essays on fundamentals of leadership.  While it is drafted for those who have just moved into their first leadership position, I hope there is something in here for the most practiced of leaders, a 'getting back to basics' that everyone needs every now and then.

Making decisions is the real hard part of leadership, it is where the ‘rubber meets the road.’ There is a quote from a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs that is illuminating:

"A decision is the action an executive must take when he has information so incomplete that the answer does not suggest itself."

Admiral ARTHUR W RADFORD, US Navy, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff - Time 25 Feb 57

Consider that that’s what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had to say about making decisions, from a man who commanded two separate carrier strike groups during operations in the Pacific during World War II.

The point is that decision-making is not easy. The admiral knew that. You need to understand that. So, how do you do it?

A few ‘simple’ thoughts can help you through this:

First, particularly when you are starting out, but whenever you have a complex problem, break the problem into pieces. This is an acquired skill. The first time you try to break a problem into pieces you will probably find it to be very difficult and you will probably feel rushed, as if there is no time to acquire even the most basic facts. Take a deep breath, and then see if there are any simple things that you can start. Are there set procedures that you have been trained on? Walk through the procedures.

Are there any obvious pieces that ‘come off’ the main issue? If so, take care of them right away, or, if they are simple but time consuming, set them aside to deal with later.

When you get to the main point, make certain that you understand your time line: how much time do you have? You need to understand the ‘processes’ of your parent organization and how those will affect your own smaller organization. If you need something in a month, but the request takes three weeks to process, and one week to order, and all requests must be filed on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, and you just found out about your need on Thursday morning, you may find that after you account for preparing a justification for your boss and ensuring the request is in the right format that you have less than an hour to dig up all the information and actually make the decision. Even so, it is better to make a decision in a compressed time line then to wait and then have the decision made for you by the bureaucratic process.

But assuming you now find yourself with less information then needed for ‘the answer to suggest itself’ what do you do?

First, understand that there is no magic answer.

Second, take a look at what information you have, including the opinion of those you work with, and then – take a deep breath and – Decide! There is one simple piece of guidance I have heard from several different leaders over the years. They all said it slightly differently, but it came out this way: make the decision you would want made if you were in charge of the whole thing, or as if you owned the whole company.

That won’t seem to help at first, but remember these few points:

1) In most cases to act is better then to not act: acting gives you some direction and in the wide range of cases any action, if carried out intelligently and aggressively, will succeed.
2) To not ‘act’ means you intend to react, to react to events driven by others; now you are following and they are the ones setting the course.
3) When you act and act aggressively you will find out all the sooner whether you are on the right course or not. One individual I knew used to call it the difference between the rhinoceros and the turtle: turtles move VERY slowly and therefore make few mistakes, but they never get anywhere. Rhinos move quickly and smash into things; they make lots of mistakes. But they will figure out they are headed in the wrong direction very quickly and can then change course. Rhinos make things happen.

When you aren’t faced with a decision, look around you, study your peers and study their situations and their decisions. Practice; think about the kinds of things that you might be called on to do. Imagine yourself in a given situation. Think of the decisions you would want to make, chew on them, and when you think you have them right, ‘store’ them in a ready corner of your mind.

Finally, keep notes. Review your decisions and the results. That review and analysis is one of the key elements that make good leaders into great leaders.


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