Current Issue
Published on November 10, 1997

MPROVE YOUR DECISION MAKING

It's easy for anyone to make a poor decision. The biggest mistakes happen when people make decisions outside their areas of expertise.
Take, for example, the sales manager who decides all letters must be no more than one page long because ``nobody reads long letters.'' Or the CFO who recommends cutting out two editions of the company's newsletter because, in his opinion, two a year is enough.

Where's the evidence for these decisions? What qualifications do these people have to make them?

Because decision makers are knowledgeable in one field, they are often quick to render far-reaching judgments on almost any subject crossing their paths. As people climb the success ladder, they become more inclined to make decisions outside their field of competence—often with disastrous results.

Poor decisions mean lost time, money and opportunity. Here are a few guidelines for improving the quality of your decision making:

Focus on ``now.'' We tend to base our decisions on previous circumstances and hopes for the future, which can be a mistake. Maintaining a focus on the critical issues of today prevents our decisions from being contaminated by pressures from the past or fantasies about the future.

Insist on solid evidence. Too often, decision making is a battle of wits and corporate brawn, neither providing much value. The arbiter should be relevant information. Making assumptions about solutions to problems is unnecessary. Gather facts.

Anticipate possible results. Once a decision begins to form in someone's mind, there's a tendency to minimize, avoid and reject conflicting information. There is ample evidence of ``cognitive dissonance'' at work-group meetings; those holding the strongest opinions attempt to persuade others by dominating the discussion or undermining conflicting view-points. To keep discussions open, try using ``what if'' questions. This reduces the need for individuals to defend their positions.

Avoid backing into the fire. The most common decision-making technique is to do nothing—to wait and see. When the need for a decision becomes inevitable, it is made quickly without due consideration or the involvement of key players. Obviously, this method can be fraught with peril.

Take time to make a decision. This isn't synonymous with delaying a decision; it's recognizing some decisions take longer to make than others.

Determine how much time is available. Whether it's three months or three hours, making good use of it can improve the quality of your decision.

Consider a contrarian position. Contrarian thinking opens the door to more ideas. Productive results can often be achieved using proponent and contrarian tension, as long as it is managed as a desirable and workable synthesis.

Ask the right questions. In many organizations, questioners are seen as obstructionists. Yet asking questions can help uncover obscure issues. Key questions include: How does this help us achieve better results? How will it assist in positioning our product, service or the company? What don't we know? What have we left out?

Learn from past mistakes. In some cases, it's not politically correct to resurrect inappropriate decisions from the past. However, the current issue may have a precedent that could be helpful.

Determine what caused the previous problem: Not taking enough time to consider alternatives? Failing to obtain sufficient input? Allowing personal prejudices to intervene?

Avoid the temptation to believe. It's easy to unplug our analytical skills at the most inopportune moments. Several years ago, a small Michigan town eagerly embraced a plan to revitalize a failing meat-packing plant that had been a primary source of jobs for the community.

The checkered past of the individual recommending the plan—he had been in trouble with the law and had a less-than-stellar business record— didn't dampen their enthusiasm. These people wanted to believe. Today, the plant is gone, along with a large portion of the packing company's pension funds.

At one time or another, we all want to believe. As a result, we suspend judgment. More often than not, it spells trouble.

By using these guidelines as a checklist for keeping the decision-making process on track, you can avoid costly mistakes.

Mr. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm in Quincy, Mass.

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