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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

First published March 8, 2011

How to be 9 times more effective as a leader 

If you were to run a tag cloud on the mostly frequently used word in this blog (and in my book, Predictable Success), I’m fairly sure the largest entry would be the word ‘decision’.The things I write about – management, leadership and business growth – are all about decision-making: people, pricing, processes; hiring, firing, sourcing; selling, buying, negotiating; ethics, honor, respect – they’re all the sum of a series of short-, medium- and long-term decisions, whatever way you look at it.

So the equation is straightforward: make the right decision more often than you make the wrong one – you win. Make the wrong decision more often than you make the right one, you lose, simple as that. (Of course, I’m including competency in execution as a part of effective decision-making.)

So you’d think the key objective for all leaders would be to get better at making decisions, right? The better we are at decision-making, the better chance we have of success. Seems logical, yes?

Well, up to a point – that point being complexity. There comes a stage in the growth of any organization when your ability as a leader to make effective decisions becomes overwhelmed by the sheer volume of decisions to be made.

Put another way: it doesn’t matter how good you are at making individual decisions if there are too many individual decisions to be made. Eventually you’ll drown in a tsunami of pending decisions – and your business will stall out.

So how do great leaders beat this problem? Answer: by learning at least one, preferably two, and occasionally (but rarely), three skills that tame the tide by dramatically multiplying their decision-processing ability.

Here’s how it works:

Option 1: You simply make decisions, one at a time:

Processing decisions individually
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…like this. Which, as we’ve seen, is fine until the sheer volume of individual decisions gets so high that you become swamped. Score 1 point.

Option 2: You build a decision-making system:

A decision making process
…like this. Instead of approaching each decision individually, you set a system in place that enables you to make multiple decisions at a time. (See my friend David Allen’s excellent Getting Things Done system if you need help with this step.)

Instead of your day or week or month comprising of an unending series of decisions like this: [decision]-[decision]-[decision]-[decision]-[decision]-[decision], it looks more like this: …pause…[multiple decisions] … pause … [multiple decisions] … pause … [multiple decisions].

Slower, yet more effective. Graceful, less frenzied. Score 3 points.

Option 3: You become expert at pattern recognition:

Pattern recognition
…like this. This stage only comes with experience, longevity, mastery – call it what you will – if you’ve been doing what you do for long enough, eventually you develop the insight and ability to recognize different categories of decision as they loom before you.

Now you no longer see each individual decision as the same amorphous blob (see option 1 above), instead you can differentiate between them and categorize them into different types. This dramatically shortens both the time spent in making decisions and the likelihood of success, because you’ve made similar decisions before, many many times. Score 3 points.

Option 4: You build a pattern-based decision-making system:

A pattern recognition process
…like this. This is the ne plus ultra of decision-making – a system based on pattern recognition. Not only are you batching decisions (as in option 2) for efficiency, but you’re also using your pattern recognition skills (as in option 3) for maximum effectiveness. Score 9 points.

Tomorrow: I might explain how to build a pattern-based decision-making system. I’m not sure yet if I can boil it down to a blog post. We’ll see.

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