A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.
Success in business comes down to just one thing – making the right decisions.
Think about it: Making decisions is what you do all day, every day. Do I hire this person or not? What’s the right pricing structure for this product? Should I choose this supplier or that one? These and a thousand other decisions, from the seemingly mundane to the monumental, are the very fabric of your daily life as a manager or leader. Get the majority of those decisions right, and you win. Get the majority (or even a crucial minority) of them wrong, and you lose.
So important is effective decision-making that you would think by now we would have developed a standardized way of making business decisions. And yet, after two millennia of what we might view as the modern era of organizational design, we don’t even share a common vocabulary around the decision-making process.
That’s not to say there isn’t an enormous body of literature on the topic – there are in fact, as you may have noticed, so many decision-making books, classes, courses and models that making a decision about how to make decisions is, well, hard to do. So, in the spirit of not adding to that voluminous body of work, let me be succinct and share with you the simple subliminal pattern which every highly effective leader uses to make high-quality decisions:
Effective decision-making is a relatively simple three-part process, and Investigation is the first part (think of it as the backswing of a golf or tennis stroke – we’ll see the other two parts shortly).
Investigation means making this simple commitment: We will take time to identify and understand the underlying data we need to make an effective decision.
What this means in practice will vary of course: we might uncover all we need to know about a simple issue in 90 seconds or less by simply asking one or two questions, whereas˜ gathering the information needed to decide about opening a new plant or launching a new product might be a major months-long project involving multiple teams of people.
Of course, the secret is in getting the balance right: most of us are either too cavalier – rushing into a decision without really taking the time to gather and understand all the underlying information; or too risk-averse – edging toward ‘paralysis by analysis’ and spend way too much time gathering and analyzing every last microbe of data.
If investigation is like the backswing, the second part, interpretation, is the equivalent of the club hitting the ball: its the point of impact, where we take the information we gathered and analyzed in part one and use it – interpret it, if you will – to make an actual decision.
Again, this step will vary from decision to decision – a water-cooler discussion about whether or not someone can have next Friday off may move seamlessly through investigation (“Is there anyone in that day who can cover for you?”) to decision (“OK, then, sure”) in a nanosecond; whereas interpreting all the information gathered to back up that new plant decision might take weeks or months.
Again, the key is in getting the balance right. Great leaders match the interpretation time to the size of the issue, whereas micromanagers grind over every decision, large or small, and cavalier leaders get bored easily and too often press for quick decisions.
Finally the third – and co-equally important part, the follow-through: Implementation. As many of us experience regularly with New Year’s Resolutions, making a great decision isn’t enough – you have to actually implement it.
This may seem a no-brainer, but think about it: how many perfectly good decisions or initiatives have you seen made in the last year, but not followed through on properly? Except in the smallest of organizations (where there is nowhere to hide and therefore transparency and accountability is inherently high), a frighteningly large percentage of otherwise excellent decisions are never fully implemented.
There’s no mystery to this three-part decision-making process – as you can see, it’s a simple, natural rhythm we all subliminally work through when we’re faced with any decision, large or small. The trick is in recognizing which of the three we’re least good at, and disciplining ourselves to work harder at those areas (I have a tendency to get bored with the implementation step, for example, and I need to force myself to build accountability steps into the implementation of any major decisions I take).