Navigating the Morass of Decision-Making

Navigating the Morass of Decision-Making by Dr. Greg Waddell

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ORGANIZATIONS ARE ALL ABOUT DECISIONS. They have prospered or declined on the basis of a few critical decisions that bent the future in one direction or another. For managers, making a decision can be like navigating a swamp filled with poisonous snakes and shifting footings. Should you include everyone in the decision or should you just make it on your own? Following is a series of questions that might help you decide how to decide.

These questions comprise two phases in the decision-making process: (a) the rational phase and (b) the people phase.[1] This is not to say that people cannot at times act rationally, but only that they often do not. The first phase is expressed in the following three questions:

  1. Does the problem have a quality requirement? In other words, is it important that the product or result of this decision demonstrate high standards of accuracy, precision, character, or whatever other criterion you use to define quality? If the quality of the outcome is not important, then you can jump directly to the second phase of the decision-making process (question four). If quality is important, then you proceed to the next question.
  2. Do you have enough information to make a high-quality decision? Too often, we make hasty decisions simply because we want to clarify the ambiguity of indecision. Those times in the life of an organization when things are “up in the air,” when choices are unclear, and the steps one is to take are undefined, are times when people feel uncomfortable. The leader may feel so deluged with putting out the daily fires of the business that he or she is tempted to grab onto the first “solution” to a problem that appears on the horizon. This is often a critical mistake. Organizations need to learn how to tolerate ambiguity and allow for a period of chaos or “productive turbulence,” as the team searches for alternative solutions.
  3. Is the problem structured? A structured problem is one that has been well-framed, the components of which have been clearly identified. Often we think we know the problem’s structure when, in reality, we have not gone deep enough. We jump to “surface solutions” that only address the superficial symptoms and don’t understand the hidden structure of the problem.Suppose you feel satisfied with your answers to the first three questions. The solution must be a quality solution; you have gathered sufficient information to make the right decision; and you have accurately defined all the components of the problem. The temptation now will be to jump into the work and “get the job done,” which may be a perfectly effective way to proceed. Before doing that, however, you would be wise to proceed to the next question, which begins to address the people dimension of problems.
  4. Is acceptance of the decision by your associates in the organization critical to its implementation? You may be able to effectively carry out some decisions by yourself. Most decisions are not like that. There are many definitions of organization, that include terminology like systemization, coordination, and interdependence—but they all have one thing in common—they all depend on people to get the job done. If you need the buy-in of others, then proceed to the next question.
  5. Are you reasonably certain that your associates would get behind the decision, even if you made it by yourself? In some cases, people may not need any additional persuasion. Remember, however, that acquiescence is not the same as passion. If the success of this decision depends on the enthusiastic support of others, you need more than assent. If the answer to this question is negative, then you have to do some vision-casting. Take time to identify all the associates and constituents of your organization upon whom the success of this decision depends and then begin the process of forging a common understanding of the issues and the validity of this decision. Who knows? Through this process, you may even come up with another, even better, alternative that lay hidden among your constituents. One more thing, in your planning process, make sure you include the time it will take to accomplish this step.
  6. Do your associates and constituents share the organizational goals you hope to achieve by solving this problem? Sometimes, in your effort to cast the vision, you may discover resistances that run deeper than mere differences of opinion about the means you are proposing. You may discover that people disagree on the very purpose and goals you are trying to achieve. That is a much more serious problem, especially in the case I am describing where the success of the decision depends on these very people. If the answer to this question is affirmative, then you must go on to the next question.
  7. Is your proposed solution worth the conflict it may create among your associates and other constituents? Someone wiser than me once counseled me to “pick my fights very carefully.” Here is where you must ask yourself if the issue touches a core value which you cannot yield. On the other hand, you may decide that your value can still be accomplished through other means. This is where spirituality really comes into play as these situations shake our very foundations and cause us to reexamine our deepest sense of meaning.

What are your thoughts? Do you have some suggestions for making difficult decisions? Please share them in the comments section below.

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.

[1] This model has been borrowed from a seminal work written by Victor H. Vroom in 1978 called Leadership: Understanding the Dynamics of Power & Influence in Organizations. The wording is different but the original idea is Vroom’s.

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