How do You Make Decisions?

In Management by Lisa Selzler

We cannot be all things to all people. Successful organizations (agencies, programs, etc.) focus on who they are, what results they need to achieve, and who they need to engage as constituents. In order to be successful, how will your organization handle making the tough decisions that lie ahead?

Making decisions seems like an easy thing to do; something we do all the time that takes little effort. However, often groups leap ahead in the process and end up damaging the result. A solid decision-making process has three key steps: identify the actual decision; define parameters and objectives; and weigh the best options.

Alternative Styles

I have a friend who made all his big decisions for an entire year using a Magic 8-Ball. Many of us used the black orb with the floating triangle of answers as kids. He would ask the ball a question – such as, “Should I take a job in Paris?” and wait for fate to decide with responses such as, “outlook good” or, “ask again later.”

If you’re trying to decide what to serve for lunch at your next board meeting, the Magic 8-Ball might be the right approach. However, if your organization needs to decide how to trim ten percent from your budget or whether or not to build a new facility, the Magic 8-Ball is a less practical solution.

A better alternative is adopting a clearly-defined decision-making model that helps make choices that meet organizational and ethical considerations. It’s good to have the model in place before it is needed – essentially determining which decision-making process will be used before any tough decisions are needed. If your organization’s leadership meets annually, perhaps to do planning or review bylaws or policies, it is also a practical time to discuss and agree upon a decision-making model. Organizations are best-served by decision-making models that break down daunting questions into feasible steps and result in thoughtful, deliberate choices.

Three-Step Decision-Making Model

I recommend this simple, but powerful, three-step model.

Step 1:

The first step is to identify the actual decision to be made. Consider an organization discussion that begins by assessing a declining financial position. This could lead to emotional defenses of certain programs or projects. Yet, the actual decision that needs to be made is how to cut expenses (or increase revenue) – which may or may not include cutting programs or projects.

Many of us have a tendency to jump ahead to alternatives, or what we think are foregone conclusions, instead of clearly identifying the specific decision we need to make. We’ve all watched meetings become unproductive quickly when emotions take over discussions that could be informed by data and facts. The group gets distracted from the real purpose of the meeting and spirals into past concerns or personal issues that may or may not relate to the decision at hand.

Step 2:

Once the decision is clearly stated – for example, how will we cut expenses by 10% – the second step is to establish objectives by which alternatives will be judged, often stated in terms of results, resources, and restrictions. Using the example, objectives might include making the reductions by the end of the fiscal year, keeping funder restrictions in place, or keeping key programs or projects whole. Then the group can discuss which objectives are absolute and which are just nice to have. Making the cuts by year end may be a necessity and keeping programs together might just be a nice thing to do, but not mandatory.

Step 3:

Now, and only now, the discussion can jump to alternatives. What choices do you have? Talk broadly about options so that several ideas can be tested against the objectives. Then you need to narrow down the options based on the decision needed and prioritized objectives. Select two or three that satisfy the most objectives and then consider the adverse consequences of these choices. Given this decision, what could go wrong? What is a possible outcome that we haven’t considered?

When you use this model, the resulting decision is clearer and more acceptable to a larger group of stakeholders. This model can add time to the process, but for issues with a large impact on the organization, the time is well spent.

Even taking just taking step 1 and clearly identifying the decision needed is a step up from making knee-jerk reactions. Using the Magic 8-Ball might seem easier. But organizations that use a more strategic and thoughtful approach to decision-making will increase the confidence and morale of staff, volunteers, and board.