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Want to reach the best decision? Stop and ask yourself these questions first

Uncertainty can keep you stuck weighing options instead of acting.

Want to reach the best decision? Stop and ask yourself these questions first
[Photo: Getty]

Who hasn’t sat down to watch Netflix, only to spend the whole night flipping through endless streaming choices?

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With so many options at our fingertips, it’s easy to get stuck. When stakes are low, like how to spend a few hours of downtime, this “decision purgatory” can be frustrating. But when life-changing choices hang in the balance—like whether to buy a house, take a new job, or get married—indecision can have deep and lasting consequences. In a business context, it can also cost millions. A study from McKinsey puts the price of inefficient decision-making at $250 million per year in wasted hours for managers at the average Fortune 500 company.

As a leader, I’ve seen people drag their feet (my own included!) on decisions for myriad reasons. They may lack experience or confidence, or wonder if they’re the right person to make the call. Others succumb to analysis paralysis, perfectionism, or fear of making a mistake. Those blockers have intensified as economic uncertainty, political unrest, and pandemic weariness have brought many to the brink of burnout.

But focusing on the “pre-decision process”—which is a simple but often overlooked stage of decision-making—can help. As a leader of a company with hundreds of employees and more than 50,000 customers, I’ve found that a few essential pre-game questions lead to faster, better decision-making.

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“Do I even need to decide?”

As a leader, the first question to ask yourself before making a decision is: Do I even need to make it?

This can depend on a few basic factors. First, determine whether the issue actually needs to be debated and decided today. For example, if 50 possible topics are raised in a meeting, handling them as they arise would be overwhelming. You could easily miss the really important decision that needs to be made today. Instead, focus only on issues that need immediate discussion. The rest can go in a “parking lot,” to be addressed at a later time.

Next, ask who should make the decision, and whether they actually have the information required to make it. Good decision prep means tasking someone with collecting vital information, and ideally making informed recommendations before you sit down to debate and decide.

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Ideally, decisions should be made by the person most directly involved in the work that will be affected. That empowers the people closest to the issue to solve problems and frees leaders from mucking around in decisions that they are too removed from to make. It also helps train future leaders to make good decisions. Keep in mind that delegation is not abdication—you might need to coach them on how to make good decisions.

These steps, alone, will streamline processes, freeing up bandwidth for more complex and high-stakes decisions while ensuring other issues aren’t lost in the mix.

“What’s really at stake?”

If you’ve concluded that this decision needs to be made now, you have the info you need, and are the right person to make the decision, the next pre-game question to ask is: How high are the stakes?

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For me, this starts with a simple evaluation: Is this decision a one-way door or is it easily reversible? Some moves are difficult if not impossible to take back, like having children, moving to a different city, or acquiring another company, so it makes sense to fully explore the options before deciding, and take your time and do deep analysis.

But if it’s something that’s less permanent, like the messaging on an ad campaign or landing page, or a new product feature, it’s better to choose more quickly since you can readily pivot afterward. Sometimes, you can get to the right decision faster by just picking one path quickly and seeing what happens rather than trying to analyze it all before you decide. Plus, making a choice and learning from it provides far more concrete information than any pre-decision analysis usually can.

An equally important pre-game question: What truly hangs in the balance? You don’t need an eight-page decision brief weighing the pros and cons of extending a successful service contract. At the same time, any leader who makes strategic decisions like acquisitions or annual resource allocations on a whim is in for a bumpy ride. In the end, your process should scale with the magnitude of the decision.

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“Am I free to fail?”

One of the biggest impediments to quick action is the fear of making a mistake. Many organizations claim to support risk-taking and a willingness to fail. But for this to work, it has to be more than slogans on the wall. What’s needed are concrete processes and policies that valorize decisive execution and protect from finger pointing.

For example, we hold regular no-blame retrospectives and quarterly reviews. Partly, this is to learn what worked and what didn’t. But equally important is showing that it’s perfectly okay if decisions don’t yield the intended results. This kind of post-mortem is common among engineering teams at the end of a sprint, but we’ve found it can be applied much more broadly. Like any skill, decision-making takes practice. Pre-decision prep work can help accelerate the process, but for organizations and individuals, success ultimately comes down to being willing to make and metabolize mistakes.

How you as a leader speak about mistakes is critical. If you name names, point fingers, and lay blame, you’ll see decision-making slow to a crawl. Instead, celebrate the wrong choices and lessons learned from them as much as you do the ones that worked. And when things do work, showcase all the missteps made to get there.

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It’s important to point out that this pre-decision matrix is just the start. For those decisions I do decide to make, the hard work still lies ahead: carefully gathering information, evaluating choices, and plotting a course forward. And, often most importantly, ensuring that even those who disagreed get on board with the decision and commit to giving it the best possible chance.

Systems and habits targeting the decisions before the decision can help clear your plate, freeing up more time to make the choices that matter, and dispensing with those that don’t.


Greg Smith is the founder and CEO of Thinkific, the leading platform for creating and selling online courses.

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