Choose The Best Course of Action To Achieve Your Goal

values principles

How do you develop options and determine the best course of action?

Choices. We have so many options when it comes to ways to achieve our goals. But what is the best option? How can we make sure we are doing the right thing? Can we ensure that we are choosing the right way and the best course of action?

One of the biggest challenges of decision-making is generating, assessing, and then choosing from among the different solutions there are to any given challenge. This is why for most decisions we use heuristics – simple rules of thumb – to avoid the extra brain power needed to make decisions. In neurological terms, we save load on the pre-frontal cortex by using automatic routines saved and accessed through the limbic system.

But we can’t always do that. Often, we are faced with a new or more important decision where we cannot entirely rely on previous experience. That might be buying a car or property, changing jobs, or just working out what to do in our free time, but if the choice has a large impact on time and money then we are likely to spend longer considering our options. Working out the best course of action (or “COA” in military parlance) is therefore a critical element of effective decision-making. 

Options and choices

One summer I was mountaineering in the French Alps with a group of friends.  We had just spent a few days bagging some routes when someone had the idea of tackling a nearby climb. It was not one we originally planned to do as it was a higher grade than we were generally comfortable with. 

That season there had been very little snow and the ridges were more exposed and icy than usual. So, as this route was following a ridge, I argued that it would be in bad condition. It was likely to be even harder than the guidebook suggested.  The weather was also set to change for the worse, so as far as I could see, the risks outweighed the opportunity.

I thought my logic was sound but the person who had proposed the climb was more charismatic than me. He managed to persuade the other two members of the group to agree with him. They wanted to give the climb a go.  It was three against one, and I knew they needed four people to attempt the route. Therefore the pressure was on for me to accept the majority decision. But I genuinely believed it was not a safe option. It was a tough conversation. I then made myself very unpopular when I refused to do the climb. It was a stand-off. They needed a fourth climber and therefore all we could do as a group was head back down the valley.

The right course of action

Fortunately for them, they found another willing climber to make the fourth member of the party. I meanwhile, by now feeling somewhat of an outcast, decided to go solo trekking for a couple of days. As I was on my own I decided to stay below the snow line and try and avoid the bad weather by heading to another valley.

I spent most of the next few days feeling guilty about being stubborn but when I returned I found that my decision had been justified.  The weather had deteriorated and the route proved to be in poor condition, as I had predicted.  After a few hours of struggling in dangerous conditions, my old climbing partners were forced to make an emergency descent. The deteriorating weather meant they also had to make a hasty retreat back down to the town. We exchanged stories and made up over a couple of beers, ready to find new routes and climb again when the weather improved.

It turned out that we were the lucky ones; that weekend ten people lost their lives in the Mont Blanc area as high winds whipped people off icy ridges.

“A moment of choice is a moment of truth. It’s the testing point of our character and competence.” – Stephen Covey

The Right Questions Guidebook Tool: considering options and courses of action

Whatever we do in life we are faced with options and choices. As in the story I shared, even if we are progressing towards our goal, we might be presented with new opportunities to consider and decisions we need to make.

Therefore, this stage of the decision-making cycle is all about considering options and we use the interrogative “which” within The Right Questions Framework. In other words, we are answering the questions:

  • Which options (courses of action) are available to me?
  • Which risks and opportunities will impact my decision?
  • Which is the best course of action?

To explore these questions fully we can use The Guidebook Tool. It is called the Guidebook Tool because we use guidebooks to inform our choices. If we travel overseas on vacation we might use a guidebook to help us with options of places to eat or things to see. When I do long-distance walks I take a guidebook to help with route options and choices of places to stay. As per my climbing story, I had a mountaineering guidebook to help consider different climbs and their grading of difficulty. So, whatever adventure we are on, a guidebook can help us consider courses of action.

Here we use The Right Questions Guidebook Tool to generate our own options. The tool breaks down the important questions into several steps. These steps are:

  1. Brainstorm multiple options
  2. Refine several courses of action
  3. Assess the courses of action
  4. Identify obstacles and risks
  5. Decide the preferred option 

This can be remembered with the acronym BRAID.

Having made the decision, we then move on to the next phase of decision-making where we develop the plan (and answer the howwho and when questions). But for now, let’s examine the four steps outlined above.

Brainstorming your options

When facing an important decision, it is generally a good idea to brainstorm multiple ideas before narrowing down the options. This is an important phase as it can unearth new ways of approaching a problem and can free us from certain assumptions. If we restrict ourselves at this stage to what we think is just sensible, affordable, or realistic then we might miss out on important opportunities or insights. 

For brainstorming techniques, you can refer to the associated post, Brainstorming Ideas of How to Achieve Your Goals.

“Sometimes the situation is only a problem because it is looked at in a certain way. Looked at in another way, the right course of action may be so obvious that the problem no longer exists.”

Edward de Bono

Generating courses of action

Once you have brainstormed a long list of potential options, the next step is to refine this list down to a few preferred courses of action. Using the heuristic of The Rule of 3 I generally recommend three courses of action which can be developed in outline and inform a decision.

You could prioritise your list from the options using your intuition and what feels like the best option.

For example your intuitive options might be:

  1. What is the most exciting option?
  2. What is the most sensible option?
  3. Which is the scariest option? 

Alternatively, you might want to apply some rationale to the selection of your courses of action. One simple way to come up with three courses of action is to look at resources. You might ask:

  1. What is the option if money is no object?
  2. What is the option if time is no problem?
  3. What is the option if people and skills are no problem?

Example of 3 Generic Courses of Action for projects and tasks:

When making a business or project plan then there are some other questions we can consider to create courses of action. For example:

  1. Which course of action best fits what is most likely to happen?
  2. Which course of action represents the worst possible situation?
  3. Which course of action allows for the swiftest outcome?

Answering these questions allows three courses of action and outline plans that reflect

  1. The logical plan (most likely)
  2. The contingency plan (worst case)
  3. The fastest effect plan (which is often the riskiest or costliest)

These questions work well when dealing with a critical (time-dependent) issue, so if these questions don’t suit (for example if money rather than time was the most important factor) then you could also ask:

  1. Which is the most elegant (gold-pated) option?
  2. Which is the simplest (silver) option?
  3. Which is the cheapest (bronze) option?

Once three courses of action have been selected then the next step is to explore a simple outline plan for each. To do this we answer the questions:

  • How will we achieve the goal (what are the necessary milestones, tasks, or steps)?
  • How will this course of action be resourced?
  • When could or should each step be achieved?
  • Who can help or support each activity?

At this stage, we are not doing detailed planning so the answers to each of these can be simplified. 

It is worth noting that this technique tends to favour business plans rather than personal plans. If you would like another way to prioritise your courses of action, I would recommend seeing which ones align most with your values (be that your personal values or organisational values). Using principles also helps us assess our three courses of action so we will explore that in the next section. 

“There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs” – Thomas Sowell

Assessing the courses of action using values and principles

Once we have three courses of action (with outlined plans to check their feasibility) the next stage is to assess them against each other and come up with the chosen course. As previously, you can just use your intuition to make the choice, but you may also want to apply some further logic. If you do have an initial gut feeling about which one you like, then make a note of it. Our intuition is based on our experience and preferences – so it is certainly worth considering – but it is also subject to our biases so it is worth noting to avoid subconscious bias subverting our decision-making. 

My preferred way of assessing courses of action is by scoring them against a set of principles or values. To start, I will generally create a matrix, listing the courses of action on one axis and then the principle on the other. I then fill in the grid, scoring each course of action against each value out of 10. I then create a total score for each per the example below.

 Principle 1Principle 2Principle 3Total Score
Course of action 1(Score 0-10)   
Course of action 2    
Course of action 3    
Assessing Courses of Action against principles

There is no limit to the number of principles you want to employ but for simplicity, I would not recommend any more than 7-8. 

The principles you choose are dependent upon the decision. You might want to use your personal values if it is a choice that most impacts you, such as a change of career. If you are making a business decision then you may want to use your organisation’s corporate values. Equally, there may be a set of specific principles you want to apply. For example, in an investment decision, you might want to employ principles from an expert such as Warren Buffet. It is worth taking a little time to make sure you have the most appropriate precepts to score your courses of action against. 

Assessing courses of action with opportunity and risks

An alternative or subsequent way to assess the course of action is considering opportunity versus risk. Here you might use the risks identified when using The Emergency Kit Tool explained in the section on risk assessment.  

These risks should then be weighed against the overall opportunity. As with risk, it might be that your chosen principles best summarise the opportunity of a given course of action. If not then consider the potential pay-off, in time, money or quality, for each course of action. Then you can weigh the risk versus the reward. For example, sometimes it is riskier to move quickly on a decision but the payoff – in terms of cumulative gain, time saved or first mover advantage – might be a risk worth taking. This is effectively a simple cost-benefit analysis of your courses of action. 

Making the right choice (and better future decisions)

Finally, having assessed the courses of action you can make your choice. Depending upon which course of action scored the highest or had the best balance of risk versus opportunity, you can now commit to that option.

Having made the decision, you can then go on to more detailed planning. You will likely find that your new plans will also incorporate lessons from the other options you looked at. For example, you might well keep the worst-case or contingency plan up your sleeve just in case something goes wrong. Equally, you might have a plan that has stages that incorporate further decision points, dependent upon the balance of risk and reward. As the plans develop, you will discover that the thinking at this stage is not wasted. 

Going through this process of creating and assessing courses of action has a further benefit. The formal process forces us to think deeper which will reinforce any learning points for the next decision. Recording the process, and the final choice, also allows us to go back and measure how effective our decisions were. We will not always get things right, but this reflective process will help improve overall decision-making. Decision-making is a skill like any other and for effective learning, we need to be able to reflect on what we have done.

YouTube Video: How do you make good decisions and choose the best course of action?

Picking the best course of action

So, if you have options and want to make the best-informed decision follow these BRAID steps:

  1. Brainstorm multiple options (be creative)
  2. Refine courses of action (down to 3 ideally)
  3. Assess the courses of action (against principles or values)
  4. Identify obstacles (and mitigate the risks)
  5. Decide upon the best course of action (make the choice)

And one final tip, think about when you want or need to make the decision. It is easy to prevaricate, put off a decision, or miss an opportunity entirely. Setting a deadline and creating a timeline for your decision-making helps to avoid these outcomes. Depending upon the impact of the decision you might want to spend 5 minutes or 5 hours thinking through your choice, but as productivity experts will tell you, the best starting point is assigning time to make the decision, as that is a task in itself. 

So, what decision do you need to make and when? If you can’t make the choice now, then take a few seconds to schedule time in your diary. And if you want some further advice on the steps to take then check out A Blueprint for Better Decision-Making.

“Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”

Sun Tzu

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