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Deciding How to Decide

Managers get paid to make decisions. Not the easy ones – where one option stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. No, the hard ones. The close calls. Sometimes a lot can ride on these decisions, and not just for our centre. Ultimately, we are judged (and quite rightly so) on the success rate of our decisions. So how do we get them right?


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This Pivot: Three simple tools to help us make decisions.

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Managers get paid to make decisions.

Not the easy decisions, where one option stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. No, the hard decisions.

The close calls.

Sometimes a lot can ride on these decisions, and not just for our centre. Ultimately, we are judged (and quite rightly so) on the success rate of our decisions.

So how do we get them right?

We have three options for dealing with tough decisions.

We can stall. If we don’t have the information required to make a sensible choice then doing nothing can turn out to be a smart move.

If it is not necessary to decide, it is necessary not to decide. — Lord Acton

But putting off a decision because we are too busy, too confused or too nervous to proceed is not a great long-term strategy.

We can ‘just do it’. Take a quick look at the facts and charge on.

Again, this might be the best choice in some instances.

In his book Screw It, Let’s Do It, Richard Branson attributes much of his success to this ideology – and it obviously worked for him! But common sense tells the rest of us that it’s not going to work well without Richard Branson’s supreme talent for spying the right options, coupled with his appetite for risk.

We can use a framework. There are lots of decision-making tools we can apply, but for small organisations many of those tools involve more effort than the decision itself.

We need something simple and fast (or the good ol' coin toss might start to look pretty appealing!).

Apply a Framework

Having a practical framework that we can use to make decisions can save us a tremendous amount of time, effort and anxiety. A framework cannot guarantee that we will make a 'perfect' decision each time, but using a framework holds the most promise for achieving consistency in our decision-making and increasing the chances we do make the right choice.

What is a framework? It’s a structured way of breaking down a decision into smaller decisions. That way, by making smaller, easier decisions about the components of the over-arching decision, we can hopefully arrive at the correct course of action.

There are many, many frameworks for making decisions ranging right up to hideously complex (we don’t have time for those!).

Let’s start with the simplest and most widely known framework: the pros and cons list.

Pro-Con Lists

Out of all the decision tools out there, pro-con lists are the most widely recognised. We’ve all had a go at using them in the past.

While simple in concept and easy to understand, pro-con lists can be hard to get right. They can even end up adding to our confusion if not properly applied. Here are a few suggestions for getting the most out of pro-con lists.

  • Pro-con lists are best used for the simple go/no-go, continue/stop, or other decisions with a yes/no type answer. They don’t work as well for decisions between two or more choices.
  • Phrase the question so there’s a clear, single choice. (e.g. “Should I hire a new teacher?” rather than “Should I hire a new teacher or increase the hours of the other teachers?”). This will give clearer pros and cons – whether to use “fast to implement” as a pro for increasing existing staff hours or “slow to implement” as a con for hiring new staff.
  • Drill down. Ask what benefits or losses an attribute causes, and consider listing those instead. For instance, "fast to implement” might have additional benefits: “We can accept those waiting for new enrolments right now”, or “We can get to work on our new website”.
  • Don’t combine multiple pros or cons in the same statement, such as “We can hire a senior teacher so I can have more time off”. Instead, split them into two: “We can hire a senior teacher” and “I can have more time off”. Maybe there are more pros in hiring a senior teacher.
  • Don’t list the same pro or con worded differently. Make sure they are unique. “Cutting costs” and “having more money for…” are really the same thing.

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Tip: Consider putting the list aside when finished and analysing the opposite question. If we asked, “Should we hire a new teacher?” we could now ask, “Should we stay with our current staff?” and do another pro-con list. If we’ve explored all our options, the two lists should match; though, often the opposite angle provides new insights.

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The Weighted Pro-Con List

My way is to divide half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns; writing over the one Pro and over the other Con. Then during three or four days’ consideration, I put down under the different heads short hints of the different motives, that at different times occur to me, for or against the measure. When I have thus got them all together in one view, I endeavour to estimate their respective weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out. If I judge some two reasons con equal to some three reasons pro, I strike out five; and thus proceeding, I find where the balance lies; and if after a day or two of further consideration, nothing new that is of importance occurs on either side, I come to a determination accordingly. – Benjamin Franklin

One of the disadvantages of pro-con lists is that not all pros and cons have equal importance. Hence the weighted pro-con list.

Weighted pro-con lists enable us to indicate how important or relevant a pro or con is to our decision by specifying a number. Usually, the higher the number, the greater the attribute’s importance. At the end, we don’t count the pros and cons. Instead, we add up the weights associated with each and go with the choice with the higher total.

The following are some useful hints:

  • It’s best to limit the scale we use to just five steps. Using a larger scale (e.g. 1–10) is really too detailed for what is a subjective ‘guess’ anyway. We can’t be that precise. (Avoid decimals for the same reason.)
  • Get the attributes listed first and assign the weights second. Our weighting will be more accurate when we have the entire picture laid out.
  • Mark the highest and lowest weightings first, then all the 4’s in one go, then the 3’s, and so on. By sticking to one level at a time we can compare all the attributes at that level to see if they all match in importance, or whether some should move up or down.
  • Think about the ratings, and ask why a particular attribute gets that rating. Pro-con lists are a framework for thinking about the decision, not just a scoring tool.

Deciding Between Two or More Attractive Possibilities.

We can use a variation on our simple pro-con list to decide between two or more appealing possibilities.

Instead of separate pros and cons lists, we can list all the attributes or elements involved in the decision in one column.

In the next column, we assign an ‘importance factor’; a number between one and five (or ten) for each attribute.

For each of our ‘choices’ we create two columns: a ‘weighting’ and a ‘total’. We give each of our choices a weighting for each attribute. By multiplying each weighting by the corresponding importance factor, we get a total.

Again, adding up the columns gives us a guide to deciding between the alternatives.

By multiplying the importance factor by the individual weighting, we get an aggregate for each choice, on each attribute.

Three Miscellaneous Final Thoughts

If the issues on the table have been reasonably vetted, the choices are equally attractive and there is still no clear answer, we can do the following:

  • Consider ranking the pros and cons in descending order. Take the top pros and the top cons (no more than three each) and ignore the rest. Focus on those key factors and make the decision based on them alone.
  • Apply Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor states that "among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected". We can interpret that to mean, when faced with multiple alternatives, the simplest solution is likely the correct one. So when nothing else separates our choices, we should pick the simplest way forward.
  • When all else fails, set a timer. Just admit that there is no clearly identifiable right way to go and then, decide. Give ourselves, say, three minutes, and that’s it. Making the decision — any decision — will reduce our anxiety and let us move forward. The best antidote to feeling overwhelmed is forward momentum.

Food for Thought…

  • As managers, we are judged on the quality of our decisions.
  • It's the close decisions that challenge us, not the ones with one clear alternative.
  • There are simple tools (frameworks) we can use to help us make better, faster decisions
  • Two simple frameworks are the pro-con list and the weighted pro-con list.
  • We can use a variation on the weighted pro-con list to compare two or more attractive alternatives.

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