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Decision-Making Hacks for Leaders

Consider this—some sources indicate that the average person makes 35,000 decisions a day,* so the ability to make decisions quickly is hardwired into our brains. From what to wear to what to eat, we make decisions, often unconsciously, that impact the smallest details (How do you take your coffee?) and the overall trajectory of our lives (Will you marry me?). And while those personal decisions change our lives, as a leader, your decisions impact the individuals with whom you work, the teams you lead, and the organization or enterprise of which you are a part. We spend 8 hours a day at work, and the decisions we make at work determine the path of our career, govern our work relationships, and define our ability to drive results on our team. All of these decisions have an impact on the success of the overall organization.

Leaders in life-saving positions, such as military personnel or emergency room doctors, chose jobs where rapid and accurate decision-making is clearly critical. But in the age of digital disruption, speed in decision-making is also an expectation of other roles. Leaders across a wide range of industries are being asked to pick up the pace of the choices they make without compromising the quality of their decision-making.

The Expectation of Faster Decision-Making

Digital disruption has several implications for the speed of problem-solving and decision-making.

  • Data is more readily available quickly and transparently. No longer do leaders need to wait for weekly reports on client satisfaction—a quick scan of customer reviews can give them a pulse on what’s going well and where dissatisfaction with a product or service may be an issue. External sites such as Glassdoor and internal sites like Yammer provide a window into employee successes and challenges. Greater transparency with data means colleagues and team members are now privy to data once reserved for leaders alone.
  • White noise is increasing. With massive, unfiltered data, leaders encounter a great deal of white noise: extraneous information that may or may not need to be factored into a leader’s decision-making process. Being able to discern critical data from erroneous information is a necessary skill of digital leaders.
  • Competition is fierce. Access to information and technology allows new competitors and new startups to emerge more quickly. Leaders no longer have the luxury of a ramp-up time to determine how to outmaneuver a potential competitor. Staying ahead by making faster decisions is key.
  • Immediate gratification is anticipated. Because technology allows for speedier communication, speedier decisions are expected. Leaders, and the teams they lead, can text or use online collaboration platforms to send and receive real-time responses. The expectation of an immediate response or decision intensifies because technology exists that enables that decision to be made and communicated expeditiously.

Eight Ways to Faster Decision-Making

For the reasons stated above, leaders need to make decisions faster. No organization ever became successful by the analysis paralysis that often grips leaders and their teams. The bottom line is that faster decisions are better than no decisions. No one has ever left a meeting saying or thinking, “I hope we come out of this meeting with another meeting to think about these issues.”

But does speedy decision-making differ greatly from the more plodding decision-making best practices of the past? Yes and no. We can apply the best practices of decision-making in a nimbler way to meet the swift pace of today’s workplace. Speed doesn’t mean sacrificing a thoughtful and deliberate approach. An agile decision-maker can be an accurate decision-maker. Faster decision-making is about using hacks and shortcuts and avoiding the tedious pitfalls of the past.

How to:

  • Flex frameworks – While an extensive fishbone diagram or decision-making protocol may not be practical in the moment, you can flex simple frameworks to help you think through your best choice. A basic pro/con analysis or a simplified decision matrix allows leaders to quickly make sense of the tradeoffs of their choice.
  • Chunk it up – Making a decision doesn’t imply you have to solve the entire problem. If you can’t address the larger challenge at hand, make a smaller decision, or series of smaller decisions, to create momentum and progress.
  • Anticipate – Notice patterns and increase your ability to anticipate a challenge that will require a solution. Recognizing patterns enables you to make a faster decision when faced with a similar challenge.
  • Use resources/support – Don’t be afraid to seek the input of others—even when speed is of the essence. Consulting with trusted colleagues to quickly bounce something off of can give you the outside perspective you may be lacking if you are making a decision in isolation.
  • Keep values and priorities top of mind – Consider a quick check-in with yourself to ask the question about whether or not the decision you are about to make is consistent with your values. Focus on what really matters and on the decisions that will have the most appreciable impact on the success of the team and the larger organization.
  • Go slow to go fast – There is great benefit to taking a deep breath to think through your decision, ask for more information, or treat a team member kindly even when a speedy response is required. By slowing down just a beat, maintaining trust, and communicating clearly, you will increase the confidence of your team members and colleagues. Taking the time to build up this relationship credit during non-peak times will serve you well when you need to move quickly. Having earned the confidence of your people, you can count on them to support you on a speedy choice.
  • Stay alert to biases – Be aware of and understand how confirmation bias, groupthink, and other cognitive traps can negatively affect your ability to make good decisions. Just being able to name these biases helps you to identify when you see them in play.
  • Bring your growth mindset to your decision-making – Recognize that if you make a decision and it doesn’t work out, you can benefit greatly from failing fast: You can test your assumptions, learn from your mistakes, and try again. When you make decisions with a growth mindset, you recognize that even failures and obstacles are opportunities for growth. Look at failed decisions as opportunities to learn and grow.

Digital disruption will continue to test leaders and those they lead to take in more information, process it quickly, respond, and execute decisions with speed. Developing habits that support quick decision-making just makes sense. The 35,000 decisions you make in a day create ample opportunity to increase the speed, and keep the accuracy of your choices. This faster decision-making approach will not only cultivate your credibility with your employees, but also grow the success of your organization.

* Wansink, Brian and Jeffery Sobal (2007). Mindless eating: The 200 daily food decisions we overlook. Environment and Behavior, 39:1, 106-123.

About the Authors

Leah Clark
Director, Strategy and Planning, GP Strategies Corporation. Senior Director for Strategy and Planning, Leah focuses on bringing new products to market and enhancing the participant experience. She works with clients to understand their leadership and engagement challenges and consults with them on the creative solutions. Prior to joining GP Strategies, Leah had her own practice in executive coaching and consulting. She is a certified professional coach through an ICF accredited organization and is a Myers-Briggs practitioner. Leah has over seventeen years of experience in marketing, strategy, and product development in a corporate environment. She has also served as an adjunct faculty member in the fields of psychology and organizational psychology. She has a Master’s of Arts degree in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Arts in English and Sociology from Boston College where she graduated summa cum laude.

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