Resolve To Make a Decision

Abraham Lincoln once described a general who was unwilling to make decisions under pressure as “acting like a duck that had been hit on the head.” I have never actually observed the behavior of waterfowl suffering from cranial trauma, although I once accidentally hit a duck with a stone skimmed across a frozen pond. But that was long ago and involved an entirely different part of the duck’s anatomy.

I have observed the behavior of managers making (or not making) decisions enough to conclude that the majority of problems in business are not because someone made the wrong decision, but because no one made any decision. Will Rogers summarized the risk of indecision with this, “Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there.”

To be sure, there are “mission critical” decisions that have the long-term potential to make or break any organization. Nevertheless, unless you are a heart surgeon or an airline pilot, most mistakes are to some extent correctable, at least within limited timeframes.

Decision making is a cognitive process involving logic, reasoning and problem solving skills. Unfortunately, each of us enters the process with preconceived biases and exhibits some degree of “decision inertia” or a reluctance to move off those biases when faced with new facts or circumstances. Business decisions can be reduced to a four-step process as illustrated in the following diagram.

The first step is to analyze the problem and identify solutions. This is largely a fact gathering exercise involving input from multiple sources and considering alternative courses of action.

It is important to differentiate between problem analysis and decision making. Although it may sound redundant, success requires the decision maker to do just that, make a decision. Theodore Roosevelt said, “In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

While the dreaded “paralysis of analysis” may be seen as the cause, the reality is many people, perhaps including Mr. Lincoln’s general, simply find it safer not to make decisions, even in obvious situations.

As an example, I was once responsible for opening three new offices and hiring several hundred employees, including managers with company cars. The fleet manager came to me in a panic one day. Company policy allowed employees to select their own cars. This meant they would be without cars for several weeks. I calmly asked what the choices were, and immediately ordered 15 identical cars. She asked how I knew they would like the cars. The truth was I neither knew nor cared! Since a decision was needed, I made it. The managers arrived on their first day to find a fleet of new cars waiting on the front row. As expected, no one died.

Investment professionals report there is a tendency to “sell winners too quickly and hold on to losers too long.” The reason we hold on to losers is primarily a subconscious reluctance to admit mistakes. Your focus should be on early detection of challenges and the identification and implementation of appropriate corrective action. American author Arnold H. Glasow put it this way, “One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.” Be willing to make changes if indicated by the monitoring process, even at the risk of exposing your mistakes. Tony Robbins put it this way, “Stay committed to your decisions; but stay flexible in your approach.”

Accountability is paramount to a successful decision making process. If you want credit for your accomplishments, be willing to take responsibility for mistakes. Have enough confidence to say, “I was wrong, now let’s fix it.” Remember, your goal is not to avoid all mistakes. Simply doing nothing would accomplish that. Your goal is to minimize the impact of missteps and learn from them.

I end with this comment by Peter Drucker, management consultant and author of 39 books. He said, “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”

P.S. My apologies to PETA for the whole duck by the frozen pond rock skimming long time ago hit in the anatomy thing.

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

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