Decisions Decisions Decisions

by Marc Rounsaville on February 1, 2012

How do you make decisions? Do you ever evaluate your decisions?  What does a good decision look like?

This past week a colleague observed that if we never said no then our yes wouldn’t mean very much. This intrigued me. It reminded me of time when I was brought in to do a decision review for a large, complex organization.  Over time this group had built a very thorough process for their decision-making. Each decision brought to them was numbered, dated, summarized and published.  There were forms required in order to get a request in front of the group and the response was crafted with rigor and protocol. Sounds like a really good process, right? Well yes and no. The process for documentation was quite good, but there was little emphasis on the decision itself and there was no decision evaluation process in place. No feedback loop, no tracking or modeling of other alternatives and no disinterested party looking on.

In this decision review I found every request that came to the group over a 2 year period was merely affirmed. Occasionally more information or justification was required. Invariably each decision request generated much discussion, at times going on for hours. In the end the decision was always to affirm the request, 100% of the time. Good decision making? I think not, actually this is an example of not making a decision.

So how do you know you’ve made a good decision? Base it on the outcome, right? If there is a bad outcome there must have been a bad decision, right? Not really. Good or bad outcomes can and do occur regardless of the quality of the decision. However, good decisions will yield more good outcomes than bad decisions.

The USS Vincennes shot down Iranian Air flight 655, July 3, 1985 over the Persian Gulf killing the 290 civilians on board. There is not a rational person that would characterize this as a good outcome, but was it a good decision? Some would say there is no way this was a good decision, innocent people including 66 children died. This was a terrible, horrible outcome so it had to be the result of a bad decision, right?

Let’s look at this decision a little deeper. The airliner did not transmit or at least the Vincennes did not pick up the correct transponder signal, additionally repeated attempts to hail the aircraft went unanswered. The aircraft was outside the designated flight zone and the aircraft violated the airspace around the Vincennes.

In this case the crew on the destroyer followed procedure and established protocols. The decision has to be judged as a “good” decision with a terrible and tragic outcome.

So how does one defend against bad decisions and bad outcomes? The simplest way is ask the question, “What are we missing?” not “Are we missing something?” or “What else?” The subtleties of the difference in the questions are important. The first question invites dialog and discussion; the other two invite one word answers. The next and less simple solution is to routinely and thoroughly evaluate decisions.  Make decision review a part of the decision process. It should be as important as the decision itself. Lastly, separate outcomes from decisions and foster a climate of discussion and openness.

How does your decision making process work? 

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