It has been shown that managers can be required to make hundreds of decisions in the course of an average week at work
When you consider what management is about – planning, budgeting, organising, staffing, controlling, problem-solving and so on – it's clear that decision-making is an essential management skill because every one of these management functions involves decision-making of various kinds. It has been shown that managers can be required to make hundreds of decisions in the course of an average week at work. Yet some decisions are so complex that a single decision can take weeks, months or even longer to be final.
Whatever the number or complexity of decisions in your workplace, it's important to see decision-making as a core management competency and for managers to have opportunities to review their approach and if necessary make adjustments.
A good place to start is by having a clear understanding of what makes for an effective management decision. Then it's important to look closely at the process involved in arriving at effective decisions. And effective decision-making often involves selection and application of appropriate tools and having awareness of where each can be useful.
When managers invest time and effort in reviewing their approach to decision-making they are in a far better position to avoid some common decision-making traps than managers who assume that their habitual approach is good enough and that their decision-making is as effective as it can be.
Effective management decision-making
The quality of managers' decision-making is often judged on whether the stakeholders who will be affected are pleased with the decision or not. Whilst this might be significant in the short term, it is not a useful yardstick for determining the effectiveness of a manager's decision-making in the longer term.
Effective management decision-making is:
Successful in that it achieves its purpose – over the longer term;
Responsible in that the decision-makers have acted according to their delegated responsibilities;
Robust because a sound process has been used to make the decision;
Defensible in that the rationale for the decision can be explained to others; and
Inclusive in that people who will be affected by the decision have been consulted.
These characteristics of effective decision-making also hold clues for managers with an interest in creating the conditions for better decision-making. For example if the scope of a staff member's responsibilities has not been properly defined their capacity to make responsible decisions is inhibited. And the robustness of decision-making is often compromised when staff are put under pressure to make decisions too quickly.
‘Defensible' does not mean that every decision must always be backed up by hard evidence but it does mean that managers should be able to explain their rationale for a decision including if it is largely based on intuition. Where workplace trust and respect are high people trust colleague's intuition.
The decision-making process
It is helpful to think of management decisions as having two key components; content and process. ‘Content' refers to the data information and knowledge on which a decision is based whereas decision-making ‘process' refers to the steps you go through to make a decision.
Whilst the content component is unique to every decision the following process steps should be involved in every decision regardless of its simplicity or complexity:
Defining the issue or problem for which a decision is needed;
Identifying who has the authority to make the decision;
Recognising who should be consulted in the decision-making and why;
Gathering the right decision-making content (data information and knowledge) from appropriate sources including consultation where appropriate;
Analysing the content and generating options;
Critically evaluating the options;
Making the decision by choosing the best option;
Communicating the decision;
Implementing the decision; and
Reviewing the effects of the decision.
All too often especially when managers are under pressure one or more of these steps is missed or compromised. Then what could have been an effective decision turns into a decision with adverse consequences. For example taking time to properly define the problem or issue (Step 1) provides a firm foundation for the steps which follow. When managers substitute symptoms for a proper problem definition they risk gathering and acting on the wrong data. And when managers avoid consulting others who may be affected by the decision (Step 3) they risk alienating people who might otherwise have been committed to the decision.
These process steps are as valid for seemingly simple decisions as they are for the most complex. You can test this by choosing a decision you made at work recently and checking whether and how you addressed each step.
A vast array of tools and techniques is available to help managers with the decision-making process. From ‘scenario planning' to ‘decision trees' and from ‘brainstorming' to ‘force-field analysis' each can make a significant contribution to management decision-making effectiveness. However as with all tools it is important to choose the right tool for the job and not to expect a tool to achieve something it was never designed for.
For example ‘brainstorming' can be a great way of generating new ideas and tapping into a group's creativity. Used as part of Step 5 (see ‘The decision-making process' above) brainstorming can help generate options for further evaluation. But brainstorming is not an adequate basis for the final decision. De-Bono's ‘six thinking hats' on the other hand can be helpful later in the decision-making process to make sure that all aspects of a decision have been explored.
Managers with an interest in more effective decision-making should take time to develop a clear understanding of any decision-making tools they are considering using and to be clear on their intended use and the limits of their usefulness.
Management decision-making abounds with traps for the unwary the unprepared and managers in too much of a hurry. Here are some of the ones which can inflict the most damage both on the organisation and on managers' reputations:
Lack of clarity about the role of consultation
Consultation or ‘involvement in decision-making' can mean a range of different things. At one extreme it can refer to the formation of committee and everyone has a vote on the decision. More often it means that a manager is inviting others to provide input and that their views are valued but the manager remains responsible and accountable for the decision. The most damage occurs when managers pay lip service to consultation; asking staff for input but then never accounting for how their views have been interpreted. It is also important for managers to ensure that contributors atre aware when the final decision rests with the manager.
All too frequently management decisions are made on the basis of what feels most comfortable to the decision-maker. Everyone has a comfort zone and it is human to resist moving out of it but sound management decision-making requires managers who do not confuse their own need for comfort with making the most effective decision. Some of the most effective decisions involve a degree of management discomfort.
Paradoxically a rigorous decision-making process has a downside. Whilst exploring options checking for new angles and making sure your decision will be defensive generally increase the likelihood of an effective decision you also risk being perceived as indecisive. Make sure you keep people informed about the decision-making process and when they can expect your decision.
Individuals and groups develop habitual ways of thinking and seeing the world around them and this can create ‘blindspots'; areas that are important for an effective decision but you cannot see for yourself. Your blindspots are often visible to others however and when you suspect blindspots associated with a particular decision it can be helpful to seek input from someone on whom you can rely to take a different perspective.
When a decision-making group is affected by groupthink members seek to minimise conflict and reach a comfortable decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints. In this situation people's preference for good relations overrides the rigour necessary for effective decision-making. When groupthink is a possibility make sure to involve one or more others to help explore alternatives you may not have considered.
Looking for more ideas?
For readers with an interest in extending their reading about the topics covered in this article the following Management Insights articles and Management Guides are available on the website:
About the Author
Dr Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator specialising in organisational development and team dynamics through her company FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (http://www.fourleaf.com.au/). She facilitates strategic planning and team development undertakes organisational reviews coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures.
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