Making Better Decisions

by Janice Giannini

With a deep mastering at the intersection of IT and business strategy, consultant, board adviser and former C-suite executive, Janice has been harnessing the true power of IT for more than 30 years. An Executive and Board-level digital strategist at the intersection of risk and IT, she enhances competitive position through vision and equity with large-scale risk identification, quantification and mitigation in an ever-changing marketplace, generating long-term value for clients. She engages with senior executives and teams, particularly in complex businesses where misalignment is blocking their desired success, to develop and execute practical business strategies and plans. Clients have found her especially helpful when they recognize they must integrate an eagle's eye and worm's eye view in order to identify and remove obstacles. Janice has consistently taken on those challenges that others chose to run from. This typically involves those challenging times when failure is not an option and integrating business, technology and people changes must be accomplished simultaneously. As a result, many of her clients are complex organizations who won't settle for anything less than developing widespread professional competence.

Recently, I read an opinion piece in The New York Times titled "Why We Make Bad Decisions." The author, a global economist, was confronted with an undiagnosed serious illness. Needing a diagnosis and an appropriate treatment plan led her to investigate the process of decision making.

She says, "Faced with all these confusing and conflicting opinions, I had to work out which expert to trust, whom to believe, and whose advice to follow." Does this statement resonate with you as someone who makes numerous strategic and tactical decisions every day?

Rather than focus on why we make bad decisions, I invite you to shift the focus. Ask yourself, "How can we as leaders make more effective decisions?" First, we need to understand how we make decisions.

Here are the significant characteristics of the decision making process:

  • Experts do not enjoy 100% success. Experts make wrong calls (consistently, it turns out).
  • People are often uncomfortable challenging experts.
  • People frequently do inadequate research and do not ask enough questions of themselves and others.
  • Stress and fear distort individuals' choices and decisions.
  • People frequently act on information that aligns with their initial expectations, even when their expectations are based on inaccurate data. In other words, people don't process bad news easily.

Knowing that, let's consider the implications and the types of mitigating actions we as leaders can take to enable better decisions.

Remember that experts are human

At times, leaders set themselves and their teams up for failure by setting the expectation that the expert is always correct. When the expert makes a wrong call, the team often feels betrayed, and a lack of trust can develop. This inevitably causes the team to focus on self-protection versus sharing information to enable team success.

To offset this, team leaders need to create an open, sharing atmosphere that allows experts to make wrong calls and mistakes. Indeed, failing quickly can be the fastest way to build an innovative approach. Just be sure you understand the risks and challenges, have a plan B available, and check progress frequently to keep projects on track.

Encourage everyone to contribute

It's important for non-experts to understand that just because they are not experts doesn't mean they have nothing to add. In fact, non-experts frequently have insights that the experts miss. Here's a story a colleague recently told me. In one mid-west county during snow season, ice accumulates on overhead wires bringing them down, causing power outages. The power company's standard practice was to use a "baseball bat" approach-workers climbed the utility poles and whacked the ice off the lines. In the process, people were sometimes injured or killed. An administrator was invited to a planning meeting to address the problem. The other participants were all engineers, and the administrator had only been there a short time. She shared her observations that news helicopters flying over the wires often shook the ice loose due to the vibration. She could easily have been intimidated or felt she had nothing to offer and not spoken up. Or the room full of engineers could have ignored her input. Instead, everyone recognized the value of looking through a different lens, and the utility began using helicopters to shake loose the ice.

Create a diverse team, encourage questions, and don't take it personally if the expert isn't the one with the answer-particularly if you are the expert.

Ask the right questions

Asking sufficient questions can be challenging in business. Make sure you are:

  • Considering the short-, mid-, and long-term interests of the business
  • Asking well-researched, value-add questions and not just speaking for the sake of speaking
  • Making sure the enterprise isn't moving too quickly (consider whether you might get there faster if you slow down for a moment and take stock)
  • Acknowledging the impact that stress and fear can have on your decisions

Don't be a slave to your expectations

Research indicates that people don't act on information if it's inconsistent with their own view. For example, if the risk of bad outcomes is less than the person thought, they will accept that data. If the risk of bad outcomes is greater than the person expected, they will ignore the information.

The author of the article on bad decisions addresses this, saying: "This could explain why smokers often persist with smoking despite the overwhelming evidence that it's bad for them."

Think back. Do you often look at information you're given and say to yourself that it makes no sense? That it just can't be right? As leaders, we must constantly guard against this-just because you don't like the message doesn't mean you can ignore it.

In summary, we humans may have a naturally distorted lens when making decisions. As leaders, we can take steps to create a supportive attitude and environment that can counter these instincts, leading to more effective, more consistent decision making.