Apr 06, 2011

Making Sense of Decision Making

Chris Jones's picture
Chris Jones
Principal, Strategy & Engineering

Arriving at good decisions is one of the most important things we do with our clients. Whether we are making the decision, helping facilitate or simply participating in the process, the core of what we do is decision making. This is how we play a strategic role in the shaping of client products. Understanding the decision-making process and what we’re being asked to do is critical for our own success.

I bring this up because the past few weeks have presented a confluence of personal and professional events that pointed to the importance of decisions. How we arrive at decisions has less to do with which direction we choose, but more to do with what we considered in the choice and how we accepted the consequences. In some instances decisions resulted in a profound loss, while others have resulted in great fortune. I ran up against the inability to make a decision, and those with only one choice. Some decisions had immediate impact and others won’t have an impact for months or years. Some were solely mine and in other cases it wasn’t my choice to make and I had to move out of the way or help someone who was struggling.

Walking through these events I found a model that helped me understand the success of the decision and the impact it had. Simply stated, the result of the option is directly related to understanding the outcome and how much ownership for that decision there is. The math looks like this…

Outcomes * Ownership = Result

To start simply, if there is no ownership there is no result. If no one is willing to step up and own the decision then one will never be made. You can pretend there is a decision, but it will always remain unresolved.

The same is true for outcomes. If there is not a clear outcome how can there be a decision? This is a little subtler than ownership, but just as important. The decision’s success is directly related to how well the possible outcomes are understood from both a risk vs. benefit standpoint. In other words neglect, apathy, and mediocrity are the result of poorly understood outcomes. Conversely, success, joy, and wealth are all results of well understood outcomes.

This model doesn’t factor in things beyond our control like blind luck. There are plenty of millionaires that are the result of luck, but few of them stay that way due to poor decision making skills. The opposite is true for the unfortunate. Life can be cruel regardless of the decisions one makes, but good decisions tend to improve things while poor ones can exacerbate the circumstances.

Some may argue that this is an overly simplistic model, but breaking things down in this way helps show that the degree of difficulty is not the decision, but rather its understanding the respective components. In the end it’s about driving clarity around ownership and desired outcomes. How can your better understand, or help someone else understand, the implications of the decision through outcome, result, and ownership components?

In some respects there is nothing uncommon about these challenges and the observations are blindingly obvious. On the other hand, if that’s true, why do so many people struggle with making decisions?

There are myriad frameworks for making decisions based on rankings, dependencies, logical trees, debate, etc. And for all of these it’s still hard; mistakes are made and opportunity is lost. Still, business and life marches on, but what if we could be more aware of how decisions are made? Even when things don’t turn out the way we want them to, is there a way to reconcile without the negative side effects of regret, blame, and revenge?

My goal is to start a conversation about this model. Discover examples and prove or disprove it. Let me know what you think, and where we might want to fill in more detail.

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