May 25, 2018

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Making Difficult Decisions

The Problem

Managers are used to making choices but it's still easy to get hung up on a difficult decision. For example, choosing which of two loyal staff members to let go can cause sleepless nights. Even less emotionally charged decisions, such as deciding which talent management solution to buy, can end up taking far too much time and energy.

My Theory of Difficult Decisions

My theory of difficult decisions is that if it's hard to choose, it's because the expected outcomes are very close in value. If the outcomes are very close in value then it doesn't really matter which one you choose.

This is hardly a sophisticated idea but it certainly has saved me needless angst when faced with tough choices. Once I've recognized that it's a problem of this type, I just make my call and get on with it.

Justifying Your Decision

The downside of this approach is that it can appear cavalier. In business, there is every likelihood that you will have to defend your decision. Giving the rational answer that the two options were of equivalent value so you flipped a coin is not acceptable. So you still need to construct an argument to defend your choice. You won't be able to build an argument to convince yourself (if you could, it wouldn't be this kind of difficult decision) however that's not the goal. You simply need to build an argument sufficient to show that you were not cavalier or irrational in your decision process.

The Other Side - Why It's Good to Lose Sleep

There is one last side to this issue. Sometimes it is good to agonize over a decision. That agony can be a clue that neither choice is the best one. To get on in the world, we structure issues as having a small finite number of choices to select from. However, that reflects the limitations of our brains, not the limitations of the world. There are almost always more options outside of those placed before you.

So my last piece of advice is to be alert for those times when decision-agony is a signal that you've lined up the wrong choices. This is the one time that the anxiety and delay will pay off as you find your way to a much better outcome.

-David Creelman