11/07/2012 06:02 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

How to Be an Effective Decision-Maker

I was recently interviewed by for an article on decision making. The writer's questions were excellent and thought provoking, and I wanted to share my answers with you.


Q: For leaders you've encountered or researched, how have you noticed that decision-making tends to get in the way of productivity? Can you give some specific examples?

A: Everyone knows the perils of over-researching and under-researching decisions. Less recognized is the problem of bashing yourself after making a decision that turns out wrong. It's a huge problem because it makes you wary of making future decisions, and thus more prone to dithering.

None of us can tell the future. If a decision turns out to be wrong or suboptimal, you should just learn from it, make amends (if required), and move on. Leaders know that there is no benefit to indulging in feelings of regret, remorse, shame, etc. As Jim McCann, CEO of, once said: "If you look at highly successful people, they make the same number of mistakes as others, but they recover quickly. They don't sit around moaning about what they've done wrong."

Q: What are the defining characteristics of efficient decision-makers? How do they tend to operate?

A: First of all, disciplined leaders delegate. They hire people whom they trust to make decisions, and support them in decision making. When it's time for the leader herself to make a decision, she uses a disciplined process. She: 1) collects data and consults stakeholders, 2) analyzes the data and formulates a path, 3) acts, and 4) benchmarks her effectiveness. If it's a big decision, she will always consult her mentors and, if possible, run a trial before implementing the full solution.

Q: If someone is especially ambivalent when they're faced with decisions (always weighing the pros and cons, looking at every shade of gray) how can they recognize when that approach is no longer serving them? What signs might indicate that they're over-thinking the options?

A: After years of doing this work I've learned that nearly all the time, when someone is ambivalent, it's because they're trying to convince themselves to do something they don't want to do, or not do something they do want to do. Sometimes, a would-be entrepreneur comes to me with a crazy, convoluted, over-thought-out plan. One guy wanted to open a food store that would sell all kinds of exotic and complex prepared foods. He had it all thought out, and it was a mess. Finally, I asked him, "Is this really what you want to do?" He said, "No, I really want to open a restaurant." Notice how his Plan A was very simple and direct? It often is. However, he didn't have the capital to pursue it, and also had never worked in a restaurant, so he was understandably discouraged. Hence he came up with his convoluted, over-intellectualized Plan B, the food store.

Ambivalence is also often used as a form of procrastination. You often meet entrepreneurs who are ambivalent about making sales calls, or developing new business. They're afraid of failure and rejection, but instead of acknowledging and facing that problem, they lose themselves in piles of busy work.

A good question to ask when you're ambivalent is: "Am I trying to talk myself into doing this, or out of doing this?" And then ask yourself -- Why? Note that your reasons will always be valid; you just have to come up with a better solution than dithering. In the case of the gentleman above it was to get a part-time job at a restaurant to learn the ropes and save money.

Q: Follow-up: Is there an identifiable sweet spot between making rash decisions and spinning your wheels? How can a leader find it?

A: The short answer to this, along with many other business quandaries is, ask your mentor. There are many different types of mentors, but a particularly useful one is someone who is five to 10 years ahead of you in the same business: far enough that they have made it to the next level, but not so far that they've forgotten where they came from. And, you want some very experienced mentors, too, and very successful ones. Any would-be leader who is not consulting top-of-field mentors is just playing around: Mentors are the true short-cut to success, and often the only road to it. Here's my article on finding and working with mentors.

Of course, we entrepreneurs are lucky in that we also have an "internal mentor" we can always consult to help us figure out whether we're using our time profitably: profit. Often when we spin our wheels we're moving away from profitable activities, like sales, and toward unprofitable ones, like rearranging the retail space or experimenting with new product ideas. (Those activities are both important, but shouldn't be done at the expense of sales.)

Q: Over-thinking seems rooted in a lack of confidence. How could a leader develop the confidence to make (and trust) quicker decisions?

A: Many people understand that confidence comes from experience. When you have been in the field a while you know what to do. What fewer people understand is that it also comes from expertise. There is no substitute for knowing an important topic or skill in great depth and breadth; and when you do, you not only become confident, you become valuable to your customers and others. Your work becomes a joy, and potentially highly remunerative.

A related concept is mastery, which is when things that are difficult for other experts become easy for you.

Expertise and mastery both take time to develop, but to get there as fast as possible you'll need to be ruthless in managing your time, so that you can build your core skill set. Managers who can't help themselves from sticking their fingers in every pie are going to have trouble doing this.

Q: With any decision, one cannot prepare for every possible outcome. How could someone become more productive by focusing on adapting as they go, rather than making the perfect decision right out of the gate?

A: First of all, leaders have to acknowledge that it is, in fact, impossible to prepare for every outcome. A surprising number of people don't understand this. They may not recognize this trait in themselves, or even deny it if it's pointed out to them, but it's clear that that's what they're trying to do. This is a strain of perfectionism, which I write about extensively in my book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, and elsewhere. People who are interested can learn more here.

Beyond that, I would say that becoming adaptable is a skill that can be learned, and that leaders who want to be more adaptable can practice this both in their professional and personal lives. The trend in business is now definitely toward "lean" planning, so adaptability is a great business practice. And, of course, it will also serve you well in your personal life.

Q: What are some specific strategies you would recommend to help people make faster, more efficient decisions?

A: In the time management section of The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, I list several. I would say the main one is to decide in community. It's a good bet that's anyone struggling to make decisions is struggling alone. First, they're not using mentors. If there's a shortcut to making great decisions, mentors, who have "been there, done that" are it. Next, the ditherers are probably not involving other stakeholders, probably out of fear of being seen as weak, indecisive, or uninformed. Their decision-making "process" basically consists of arguing against themselves, negotiating against themselves, selling to themselves, etc. All of these are very ineffective.

Sometimes, the ditherers are operating at least somewhat in community; going to meetings, etc. But they're either not associating with the right people (ditherers are often drawn to other ditherers) or they are talking to the right people but not listening, probably because their need to avoid responsibility is stronger than their need to actually make a decision. This is naturally infuriating to the others involved.

Prior Posts:
If No One Falls Over, We're Having a Great Class
Six Motivational Tools to Jumpstart Your Work Year
No Such Thing as "Good Procrastination"
All Your Work Should Be Sand Castles

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