Guiding principles for decision making

Good managers are often referred to as being decisive. “Being decisive” is one of those vague management terms like “professional”, “effective” or “charismatic” that is very difficult to pin down. No one can teach it and it is assumed that either you have it or you do not. Decisive managers typically show four specific behaviours:

1. Bias for action over analysis

Actions achieve results, analysis does not. Less analysis can often lead to a better solution because it forces discussion to focus on big issues than make a big difference. Often, detail derains decision-making.

2. Prefer practical to perfect solutions

Accept that the perfect solution does not exist. Find a solution that will work in practice, even if it is not perfect in theory. The perfect solution is the enemy of the good solution because the search for perfection leads to inaction. A good solution leads to action.

3. Solve the problem with other people

Use the collective knowledge, wisdom and experience of your colleagues to gain insight. Use it to identify and avoid the major risks and pitfalls but do not convert a problem-solving process into a political negotiation in which the solution is a fix designed to pacify everyone. The result will be the least offensive solution rather than the most effective solution.

4. Take responsibility

Where there are shared and unclear responsibilities, most organisations breathe a huge sigh of relief if you have the courage to step up and take responsibility. You become the person to follow. It is a defining moment that separates leaders from followers: most people will be very happy to follow you.

The behaviour described above are hallmarks of a decisive manager, at least on minor matters such as sorting out late deliveries, staffing problems and budget arguments. But these useful instincts often desert managers when they are faced with a major decision. As the scale of the problem escalates, the number of people involved in it grows and the rational and political risks increase. Suddenly, managers become very risk averse. The manager’s nightmare is to be held accountable for a decision that went wrong. To avoid this fate, managers seek refuge behind formal processes, exhaustive analysis and widespread consultation to optimise the decision and diffuse responsibility.

Even if the decision turns out to be wrong, everyone has been so involved in the process that they will find it difficult to pin the blame on one person. What should be a rational process (make a decision) becomes a political process (avoid blame for potentially damaging solution).

The larger the decision, the more risk-averse managers become.

In general, the pay-off from making a risky and correct decision is quite low. Your success may be derailed by other factors or claimed by other people and, probably, it will have a minimal impact on your overall pay and promotion prospects. But the consequences of making a risky but incorrect decision are huge: colleagues will make sure that the blame is pinned on you, your reputation will suffer.

Owen, J., 2006. How to manage. Pearson Education.

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