A Blueprint for Better Decision-Making

steps for better choices and decisions
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Take This Expert Advice and Make Better Choices

Today you will make hundreds, maybe thousands of choices. Some of those judgements will be more important than others, but if there is one thing that I have learned, it is that we can all be better at decision-making.

I have spent years studying and teaching decision-making. This has not been a purely academic exercise either; as a leader and entrepreneur, I have had the opportunity to practice and learn from the practical application of the theory. I have not always got it right or made the best choices, but I have improved through the process.

I started this series on decision-making with a post on the things to do to make effective decisions. You can use these as a blueprint for learning how to make better choices, following each stage in turn. Here are the 10 steps:

How to Make Effective Decisions

  1. Take time out
  2. Identify the type of problem
  3. Apply a decision-making process or model
  4. Ask questions
  5. Understand what matters
  6. Assess factors and constraints
  7. Identify assumptions
  8. Consider your options
  9. Think through the consequences
  10. Make your choice and act upon the decision

Here is each step in more detail with the relevant links to previous posts:

Take time out

If you have a big decision to make it is worth taking some time to think about it. If you are facing an important choice, you should invest time and effort proportionate to the scale of the problem. For example, purchasing a house will require more thought than buying a coffee. So be proactive, plan in some thinking time.

My favourite way of getting quality thinking time is taking a walk, preferably in the great outdoors. Walking is not only good for making decisions as you can read about in The Surprising Power of Going for a Walk.

Identify the type of problem

When you start to think about your choice it is worth starting by classifying the sort of challenge you are facing. That is because the solution to the issue is dependent upon the sort of problem that confronts you. 

There are two very helpful models to assess the sort of problem and how to deal with them. The first one was developed by Keith Grint and I explain in the post: What Sort of Problem Do I Need to Solve?

The second is the Cynefin framework, which you can read about in, The Four Main Types of Problem You Face and How to Address Them.

Apply a decision-making process or model

Decision-making is a process. Whether or not we are conscious of how we make our choice and whatever the balance of intuition and logic in our decisions, there is always an underlying structure.

One of the simplest ways of expressing this process is the OODA loop, which is explained in Top Gun Pilots and Entrepreneurs Share This Skill.

In terms of mental models to use then check out The 36 Decision-Making Models I Continually Find Most Helpful.

Ask questions

If the choice is not an obvious one, then we need to start asking some questions. Good questions lead us to the data needed to inform our decision. When asking questions, it is good to use a framework to ensure as many bases are covered as possible. One simple approach, using interrogative words, is explained in How to Ask The Right Questions from a Bomb Disposal Officer.

Understand what matters

The more I have worked as a leader and coach, the more I appreciate the importance of values in how we make decisions. Values are the moral compass that guides our choices, as I explain in Unlock Your Values to Make Better Choices.

If you want further help in working out your personal values, then read: What Are Your Personal Values?

Assess factors and constraints

Having asked questions about your situation you will be presented with data to process. These are the factors and constraints that influence your choice. But the way we process data is not necessarily as rational as we might like. Our brains use hacks, and our neurological programming has bugs. These cognitive biases can undermine quality decision-making so you need to be aware of them, as I explain in You are More Biased Than You Think.

Identify assumptions

Another beartrap to be aware of when making decisions is poor assumptions. We frequently don’t have all the information we want when making a judgement and therefore we rely on assumptions. Sometimes these assumptions are reasonable and other times they are harmful fallacies. Learn to work out which is which in How to Identify and Disarm Wrong Assumptions.

Consider your options

Having considered all the factors and avoided the pitfalls of harmful biases and wrong assumptions, the next step is thinking about the different courses of action that you can take. Most choices have multiple options and one of the challenges of decision-making is negotiating these options. There are decision-making models to help do this, but I have found that the most important thing is to first create an environment where people can think to the best of their ability. The critical elements of this thinking environment are laid down in How to Give The Gift of Generative Thinking.

Think through the consequences

Once a preferred option is identified then it is worth considering the consequences of embarking on the course of action. Before fully committing you can try and assess what the obstacles and outcomes are likely to be. Most importantly you can work out whether a decision is reversible and what is the impact of going back once a decision is made. If we fail to do this final check on our decision then we can end up in trouble, as seen in How a Heuristic Nearly Killed Me.

Make your choice and act upon the decision

Finally, we need to act. A decision is only really a decision when we take the first step. That is the first challenge as the first steps are often the hardest. The next issue is keeping going as many choices – such as big life goals or changes – requires determination to see them through. The trick here is to make a discipline of incremental progress. To do this we have to change our behaviours and we do this by building effective habits. One tried and tested way of building habits is explained in How to Build Supreme Habits and Compound Good Decisions.

Putting it all together

So, there you go. You are now equipped with the psychology, steps, and models that you need to make better choices. And as with any other skill, we improve through deliberate practice so apply the knowledge, review what you have learned, and apply those lessons to your next decision. 

For reference I have created a list of these and other helpful Medium articles called Effective Decision-Making.

What choices do you need to make today? Pick one and start to work through the steps. Let me know how you do!

This article was first published on Medium.

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