Every single day, you and your colleagues make decisions within your organisation. In fact, according to recent studies an individual makes an average of 612 decisions per day. That equates to 4,900 decisions a week and an incredible 254,800 decisions per year. The quality of each of these decisions is what influences your organisation’s future direction and success, so it would therefore be true to say that the single most important piece of behaviour within our organisations is decision making.
The default template most individuals use when making decisions is right and wrong thinking. The aim is to make the “right” or “correct” choice and avoid at all costs the “wrong” or “incorrect” one.
Listen carefully to the language used in meetings in your organisation and you will witness this thinking rearing its head over and over again. Comments such as “we need to make the right decision here”, “I’m not sure what the right choice is”, “I think that’s the wrong thing to do” or “I believe we’ve got this wrong” are typical.
You will undoubtedly have experienced moments where you have felt you have made a wrong decision. Equally, you will have experienced times when you believe you have made the right choice. On both occasions, you are sure to have experienced some kind of emotional reaction. If you thought you made a wrong decision, you are likely to have felt unhappy. If it was a right decision, you probably felt good about yourself. It’s the same for everyone.
So prevalent and ingrained is this thinking that we all make decisions based on right and wrong functioning to some degree. It’s no wonder – it’s been hammered into us from an early age. Parents and other authority figures express situations in right and wrong terms from the moment we’re old enough to make sense of what’s being said. The concept is embedded into most religions, into our criminal justice system, even the Government, to name but a few examples. It is a cultural disease and given that it’s a disease that afflicts people’s mental functioning, it’s inevitably made its way into our organisations.
The workplace is riddled with continuous mini-dramas all associated with the way people feel about the decisions they have taken that day and those that others have made. It’s a pantomime see-saw between negativity and positivity, alternating on a regular basis. Its effect is to paralyse organisations, rooting them firmly to the self-esteem of the individuals within them and to a set of arbitrary rules.
What’s worse is that the basis for right and wrong thinking is fundamentally at odds with the nature of reality. If you make a decision with the aim of identifying the right choice and avoiding the wrong one, you are entering into a binary comparison. But curiously, the world is not a binary place. Situations are generally more complicated and have a greater number of outcomes than the rather simplistic right or wrong options we normally use. Our right and wrong decision making reduces every situation to a binary set of outcomes. Reality is not binary.
Right and wrong decision making is also based on a other very unreliable elements. Personal values, moral views, emotional states, social pressure and assumptions to name but a few. How consistent are these between different people? How objective are they? Are they always reliable?
So every day in our organisations, we spend enormous amounts of time identifying situations that require a decision, then reducing each to a binary comparison, the outcome of which will have emotional repercussions for each of the individuals involved.
Should we be running our organisations like this?
The answer is clearly no. But is there a method for making decisions within organisations that avoids the drama, reduces or even prevents emotional fallout, allows the facts of reality to be fully taken into account and which will ultimately produce wiser decisions?
There is. The antidote to this insidious disease is an alternative mindset – let’s call it Options-Based Decision Making.
Every decision has multiple different options and multiple different outcomes. It’s just that with right and wrong thinking we often shut off a number of the potential options because we have labelled them “wrong” or “unpalatable”. With Options- Based decisions we consider ALL options. We attach no emotion to any of the options – what we are looking for is to gain the best understanding of the situation we’re in, then identify as many possible options as we can before selecting the one that best fits the situation.
Here’s the 4-step process to making Options-Based decisions:
- ASSESS THE SITUATION. Identify all the facts of the situation about which a decision is to be made, ensuring you have a complete picture of what is going on. You should aim to have as much knowledge as is possible at the time. Don’t proceed on incomplete information.
- IDENTIFY POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS. Create a list of possible solutions based on what you know about the situation. Consider everything, even if it seems outrageous or doesn’t fit your preconceptions.
- CONSIDER EFFECTS AND IMPLICATIONS. Reflect on the likely effects and implications of each possible solution. What will happen if the solution is carried out? What will be the likely implications of this on a short, medium and long term basis?
- IDENTIFY THE MOST APPROPRIATE SOLUTION. Based on the facts of the situation and the likely effects and implications of each solution, select the one that is the best fit for the situation.
If we look at all options with no desire to make a right or wrong decision we are left with a choice of which option is the most appropriate to the facts of the situation we find ourselves in. In other words, we are freed from all the emotional baggage that we normally associate with decision-making and are able to make a genuinely business led choice.
Suddenly, we find ourselves able to consider that one of the options in reducing our company debt is to sack half of the staff. We can logically contemplate the possibility that the amazing merger deal with another organisation will not deliver the required benefits over a medium term timeframe.
We can do this because we’re just looking for the most appropriate option, not trying to make the right choice.
At Franklin-Hackett Ltd, we have seen dramatic improvements in the quality of decisions in organisations we’ve worked with, when they have embraced Options- Based thinking. The result in every case has been radical change and innovation.
And all because they have realised the difficulties and limitations that come from trying to make the right decision.
John Hackett is an Organisational Change Alchemist and Managing Director of Franklin-Hackett Ltd