Leaders make decisions. They decide which way to go and how to get there. One of the things that makes decision-making intimidating, especially as a new leader, is not having enough information to KNOW if you will be successful.  If you know that doing something will lead to a successful outcome, then it’s pretty easy to commit to doing it, isn’t it. But in reality, leaders often do now know what the outcome will be, and that fact can stymie even the most experienced leaders. I want to share with you a strategy I’ve developed to make decisions even when I did not know everything I would have wanted to know. Not only will it help you make decisions, but it will also keep your organization moving in the right direction.

I have a lot of personal experience leading military units in high-pressure, stressful environments, and I’ve been forced to learn how to make decisions in any situation, especially when I did not have all the information I would have liked to have.

  1. When faced with a difficult decision, the first thing you should do is determine when you need to make the decision. Decision-making involves thinking and contemplating options, but sometimes, you don’t have much time to do that, so you need to think quickly. Other times, you might feel pressured into making a quick decision, when in reality, you could have taken more time to think and evaluate. Your first step in making a decision is to determine when you need to make the decision by. This will show you how much time you have to think and gather information, and in general will put your responsibility into more perspective.  One thing to watch out for in this step is to avoid continually delaying the time in which you have to make the decision. I’ve been in organizations where the leader didn’t want to make a decision, and kept putting it off, and that ended up causing our team a lot of frustration because we never could move forward. Determine when you need to make the decision by and stick to it.
  2. The next step in your decision-making process is to gather information about your decision within the timeframe you determined earlier.  It’s important to remember that you are likely never going to have all the information you would like to make a decision. That’s ok, and actually, perfectly normal. Do you best to learn and investigate as much as you can, talk to your team, or other mentors, and become as knowledgeable as possible about your course of action.  Some things that I like to do when gathering information about my decision are to:
    • Make a Pros and Cons list, which is simply a list of all the benefits and downsides to a particular decision. It helps me visualize the decision better. 
    • Envision what the second and third order effects will be of a particular course of action – who will be affected by this decision 2 months from now? What will be changed and how will my team and others be affected?  Are there people or procedures or resources that I’m not thinking about now that will be impacted, either positively or negatively, by this decision in the future?
    • Consider the resources you will need to put in play for your decision. Do you have what you need, or do you know what you will need to make something happen?
    • The most important part of gathering information is to link your decision to your team’s purpose. Why are you making the decision? How does the decision further your team’s reason for existence?  You have to make sure you can answer those two questions, and relate why your decision is important to your team. If you aren’t too sure about this, ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t make any decision at all – what would happen to your team? After thinking about that, next ask, how would your organization be different if you pursued the course of action you are thinking about? Compare those 2 situations, doing nothing and pursuing your decision, and ask yourself which course of action moves your team closer to fulfilling and living out why your team exists.
  3.  After you’ve gathered information, it’s important to step back and evaluate the risk level of your possible course of action. Remember, you likely don’t know 100% if your decision will be successful, so before committing to it, make sure you understand the risk associated with it. If your decision was to completely fail, what would the impact be?  Would people be hurt? Would you lose money? Or would something less drastic happen, like a 1 week delivery delay. As a leader, you are the person on your team that sees the bigger, future picture, so make sure you understand the risk associated with a course of action, and let that influence what you decide to do. Only you can know what you and your organization are comfortable with as far as a level of risk you are willing to accept. Make sure you’ve thought about the risk and can justify the level of risk you are about to take.
  4. Finally, after you have gathered information and assessed risk in the time you have, it’s time to commit to a course of action. Decide your course of action, and be able to explain the reason why you chose it. As the leader, no one else is going to make the decision for you, so be bold and trust the information you’ve gathered and the risk analysis you conducted. Ultimately, if you can show how your decision moves your team closer to living out their purpose, as well as the information that brought you to your decision, you will make the right decision a majority of the time. Even if you fail and your course of action is a bust, you will be able to learn from it and adjust course to continue making your team successful. And that is what your job as a leader is all about.