The current state of our lives is a result of the many decisions we’ve made leading up to the present. Many are made without conscious effort, like deciding which route to take home from work. Others require more brain power, such as contemplating marriage. The same is true of our professional lives. Accepting a meeting invite is trivial compared with the task of evaluating and deciding on a new-hire from a pool of qualified applicants. How do we ensure that we’re consistently making the best decisions? Here are a few of the techniques that great leaders use to make better decisions.
Externalize Your Choices
Write things down. The human brain will activate certain areas in response to visual stimulation which are not used when simply thinking about something. It’s a trick that allows you to focus additional “processing power” on the task at hand. This means that when mulling over a difficult decision, putting the options on paper can lead to the surge of inspiration you need to make a choice and if it doesn’t, it’s a good first first step and will help you with the next tip.
As a creative agency, we apply this philosophy when evaluating artwork. Often, it’s not enough to look at a logo design in high resolution on a computer screen. Sometimes we’ll print the concepts in various sizes so we can consider the designs on paper. We’ll also create digital mockups representing what the logo will look like on a business card or landmark signage. Seeing the artwork on different mediums allows us to decide which concept will work best in any environment.
Understand Your Emotional Biases
It’s not necessary to remove all emotion from the decision making process, after all our emotions are key part of our intuition or “gut” feelings. Our emotional state changes throughout the day. If you’ve ever started off the day stuck in a traffic jam which caused you to spill coffee on yourself and arrive late for a meeting, chances are the frustration of those events hung over you like a dark cloud for the remainder of the day. If it was bad enough, you probably even recognized that it was influencing your decisions and interactions with other people. Sometimes though, the complex array of emotions that make up our overall mood are not consciously obvious to us. Other factors like hunger, fatigue and stress all contribute to our overall state of mind.
An interesting study performed by researchers in Israel looked at the outcome of 1,100 judicial rulings and compared the favorability of the rulings to the time of day that the decisions were made. From the authors:
We record the judges’ two daily food breaks, which result in segmenting the deliberations of the day into three distinct “decision sessions.” We find that the percentage of favorable rulings drops gradually from ≈65% [early in the morning] to nearly zero within each decision session and returns abruptly to ≈65% after a break. Our findings suggest that judicial rulings can be swayed by extraneous variables that should have no bearing on legal decisions.
A great way to ensure that unrelated emotions are not affecting your judgement of a situation is to consider the merits of your options at a later time. Put more simply: “Sleep on it.”
Designers, writers and other creatives all have personal preferences and none are immune from emotional bias. When critiquing a piece of creative, whether art or copy, we make it a point to avoid knee-jerk reactions by reviewing the piece more than once before making our final judgement.
Shift your Perspective
We’re told frequently that in order to change perspective you must “put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” While this can be helpful, it implies that you should look at the situation from someone else’s first person perspective. You’re already looking at it from your own first person perspective. The act of thinking about a decision as if you’re someone else does not remove your own personal biases. Instead of saying “if I was Warren Buffet, what decision would I make?” Try considering “how would Warren Buffet judge my decision.”
This is especially important when making decisions which have ethical implications. In Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston’s book Green to Gold, they discuss the “newspaper rule” and the “grandchild rule.” The “newspaper rule” would have you assume that your decision is published on the front page of your local newspaper for everyone to see, including your family and friends. The “grandchild rule” is useful for considering long term implications of your decisions. 40 or 50 years from now, how will your grandchildren view your decision? Will they feel pride or shame?
When we’re charged with the task of producing marketing materials which represent our client, they are trusting us to grow their business and improve their reputation. Of Course we are constantly considering the perspective of their target audience but beyond that, we’re evaluating the long term effects of a decision and how it will affect their carefully crafted brand image.
Don’t Wait Too Long
You may never have all of the information needed to make a decision. There are too many variables that are outside of our control. If your intention is to uncover every unknown before pulling the trigger, then you’ll find yourself paralyzed with indecision. The very act of making a decision means that you’re discarding perfectly viable options. This can be a troubling prospect for even the most savvy business person.
“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” –Theodore Roosevelt
Colin Powell, a retired four-star and former United States Secretary of State is an advocate of the 40-70 rule which basically means once you’ve got roughly half of the available information, go with your gut. If by chance you do gather enough information to be 100% sure, it’s probably too late.
There is no silver bullet when it comes to decision making, however you can always hedge your bets. By externalizing information, you’ll be able to fully understand your options. After that, checking your emotions can ensure your decision is a rational one. Finally, shifting your perspective can help you catch things you might not have originally considered. Once you’ve come to your best conclusion, have confidence in your choice and pull the trigger.