Making Great Decisions

Source: McKinsey website, Apr 2013

tools that someone could use in five or ten minutes that may not make the decision perfect but will improve it substantially. … There are individual solutions and organizational solutions.

… the further up the hierarchy you go, the harder it becomes to say, “My judgment is fallible.” Corporate cultures and incentives reward the kind of decision making where you take risks and show confidence and decisiveness, even if sometimes it’s really overconfidence. Recognizing uncertainty and doubt—it’s not the style many executives have when they get to the top.

Ohio State University professor Paul Nutt spent a career studying strategic decisions in businesses and nonprofits and government organizations. The number of alternatives that leadership teams consider in 70 percent of all important strategic decisions is exactly one. Yet there’s evidence that if you get a second alternative, your decisions improve dramatically.

One study at a medium-size technology firm investigated a group of leaders who had made a set of decisions ten years prior. They were asked to assess how many of those decisions turned out really well, and the percentage of “hits” was six times higher when the team considered two alternatives rather than just one.

When people ask me what will make a difference as they build decision processes, I emphasize three things.

  1. First, recognize that very few decisions are one of a kind. You are not the first person to decide on an acquisition. Lots of M&A happened before, and you can learn many things from that experience.
  2. Second, recognize uncertainty—have alternatives, prepare to be wrong, and have a range of outcomes where the worst case is real and not “best case minus 5 percent,” which is very common. Creating a setting where it’s OK to admit uncertainty is very difficult. But if you achieve that, you can make headway.
  3. Third, create a debate where people speak up. It’s the most obvious but also the most difficult. If you’re the decision maker, when you get to the debate you’ve already got an idea of where you want it to lead. And if you’re an experienced executive, you’ve already influenced your people, consciously or unconsciously. A good intervention point, for instance, is to ask subordinates if anyone disagreed with them about a recommendation they bring to you. If everybody agreed, that’s a sign that there may have been “groupthink.”3

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