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How to Teach Decision Making

So you want your people to make good decisions?

One of our RESULTS.com clients asked me to recommend a process to would help his people make good decisions, even when he could not personally be there to advise them. The CEO travels a lot and wants to give people the freedom to make decisions in his absence.

Here is a summary of my communication to him:

The decisions made every day at all levels of your organization will ultimately determine the results you achieve. Yes, living the core values of the organization is important. Yes, working hard and having a good attitude is important. But at the end of the day, the decisions each person makes, and impact of those decisions is what will ultimately define your results.

Decision making is simply making choices; choosing between alternate courses of action. There are many different decision making models, and to be fair, you do need to pick the right framework for the situation you face. For example, strategic decision making requires a very disciplined thought process. What I recommend here is a generic framework that you can teach your staff to use for day to day decision making in all roles (click to Tweet!).

Management thinker, Peter Drucker advocated a s cientific method for decision making in his pioneering book The Practice of Management published in 1955. His six step process has stood the test of time. Here is my simplified take on his approach, with my own thoughts added:

  1. Define the problem (What is happening?)
  2. Analyze the problem (Why is it happening?)
  3. Develop alternative solutions (What are my options?)
  4. Select the best solution (What will I do?)
  5. Convert the decision into action (What action can I take right now?)
  6. Check results (How effective was my decision?)

1. Define the problem (What is happening?)

“A problem well stated, is a problem half solved” (Charles Kettering)

What is happening?

Is it a fact or my opinion?

What proof do I have?

How long has the problem existed?

What is the impact of the problem?

Do I need to take action?

If so, by when?

2. Analyze the problem (Why is it happening?)

  • What caused the problem to occur?

Many people make the mistake of rushing to address this issue in front of them, not realizing that it is just a symptom of an underlying cause. It’s worth taking a bit more time to define the problem properly by using a technique developed at Toyota called ‘The 5 Why’s’”. Very simply, when a problem occurs, you dig below the surface symptoms to uncover the root cause by asking "why" no fewer than five times. Here’s an illustration of the concept from Wikipedia

Q: What is happening? A: The vehicle will not start. (the initial problem / symptom)

  • Why? - The battery is dead. (first why)
  • Why? - The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
  • Why? - The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
  • Why? - The alternator belt was beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (fourth why)
  • Why? - The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, the root cause)

3. Develop alternative solutions (What are my options?)

  • What are my options?
  • What happens if I do nothing?
  • What are the pros and cons of each option?

4. Select the best solution (What will I do?)

  • What will I do?
  • How will I communicate my decision?

5. Convert the decision into action (What action can I take right now?)

“Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work” (Peter Drucker) 

  • What tasks will I assign to myself (or others) to put the decision into action?
  • How will I make sure these tasks get done?

(Obviously, I'd recommend using RESULTS.com for this)

6. Check results (How effective was my decision?)

“Delegation without follow up is abdication” (Andy Grove)

I applaud you for wanting to empower your people to make decisions, but you can’t just give people decision making authority and hope for good results.

I have written previously about the importance of After Action Review (AAR) meetings. This is a type of debrief meeting developed by the United States Army to help soldiers capture the lessons, both positive and negative from each mission. You can use a similar approach to check on the quality of your decisions with your people.

  • What was the goal (the decision)?
  • What actually happened?
  • What went well and why?
  • What could be improved and how?

Managers add massive value to their team members when they include this process as part of their weekly 1 on 1 meeting. I have written previously about the magic of regular feedback. Coaching and feedback go with the job title. If your managers aren’t comfortable discussing performance, then they should not be managing people. Following up every week in a formalized weekly meeting to discuss each person’s decisions and the results of their performance is success discipline that great managers practice religiously.

Anyway, I hope you find this framework useful. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.