Slow That Decision Down

Stop, Take Stock, and Use That Calendar to Your Advantage

“Don’t rush me, sonny! You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles,” warned Billy Crystal, costumed up as Miracle Max in the 1987 classic The Princess Bride.

In the movie, that was a laugh line, but it’s not a bad way to think about the decisions you make as a leader. For every decision that can be made quickly, there are some that require you to take a little more time, thought and perspective. Rush through a decision and you can end up with the wrong one—with rotten results.

There are three steps you can take to make sure that impatience and inattention don’t lead to disaster. This starts with process for making tough decisions, thinking through the goals you want to accomplish, and then setting a deadline to ensure that you don’t exhaust yourself in the process.

Create a process—and stick to it

Leigh Newman, the deputy editor of Oprah Winfrey’s eponymous Web site, was faced with the task of finding a new financial advisor. Ordinarily, she would have made a snap judgment and gone with someone a friend recommended. But she realized that making a decision that quickly could have dire consequences—especially if he turned out to be the kind of con artist who ends up on CNBC’s American Greed.

So she embraced the slow process her husband usually takes with his decisions—asked for references, peppered the prospective advisor with questions about the Internal Revenue Code, even chatted up his secretary to see how he treated his staff. After some time, Newman concluded that the financial advisor would do the best job for her family and hired him for the job.

Not every issue will require an extensive decision-making process. But there are some situations in which a snap decision is the worst one to make. This is because the details you need for the decision may not emerge until after you spent time figuring things out. Developing a process for vetting those tough decisions—and sticking it to it—is key to making the best possible decision.

One part of that decision-making process should include seeking advice from those you trust to provide honest information and feedback on a situation. Unlike you, they can see things from a different viewpoint.

Asking tough questions is also key. Productive skepticism forces you to think things over from a different perspective. This leads to clarity and, ultimately, better judgment.

Start from the goal

But what if you have a lot of information and not a lot of clarity? This is always possible. More often than not, even with high-quality data, you can’t assess the future or make decisions that will always hold up with time. Even with plenty of time, you still won’t be able to account for every single scenario.

Given that life is full of uncertainty, your first step in decision-making starts beforehand with the answer to this question: What are you setting out to accomplish?

This means setting clear and concise goals that may be achieved even if you must change course or come up with new decisions. As part of that process, you should focus on making your goals specific, measurable, timely, and realistic given the lay of the land.

But it isn’t enough to just think about your decisions in the context of your goals. You may even need to reassess whether the goals are achievable or worth doing. After all, the goals themselves may be the bigger problem than the decisions you make to achieve them. This means assessing your goals to see if they are too vague, merely aspirational, or just plain unrealistic.

Set a deadline beforehand

Even if you have a process for vetting a decision and a goal in mind, sometimes there will be no one good decision. The reality is decisions involving tough situations, such as how to respond to a long-term competitive threat, involve using limited information. Your calls can have unforeseen consequences, and the facts on the ground may change, drastically.

Taking too much time to study every stray piece of data can lead to what management consultant Peter Bregman calls decision fatigue. You can end up exhausting yourself on one tough decision, especially when you also have other, smaller decisions to make that cannot always be automated or made for you.

This is when a set deadline on a final decision is in order. A predetermined date for decision-making helps focus your mind on addressing the problem in an orderly way. After figuring out when a decision must be made, you can then set a deadline on your calendar as well as prioritize the decision-making on your schedule.

Another step in setting the deadline lies in devoting time to thinking things through. This is where Focus Thursdays, during which drive-bys, interruptions and meetings are verboten, comes in handy. By setting up Focus Thursdays, you and your colleagues will  have more time necessary to focus on the hard decisions—and more often than not to make the right call.

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