How to be a better decision maker

Updated: Sep 13, 2018

Back when I was a grad student, I once confided to my older sister, who was by then a successful business owner, how hard it was for me to make decisions at work. I was always asking for support or agreement from my adviser or colleagues, afraid of making a wrong call. She told me that I would get better at it, little by little, starting with the small, banal decisions. She also said one day I would be so good at it that I would become impatient with ambivalence and indecision.

I followed her advise, and with practice, decision-making became much easier and her words came true. Along the way, I curated a list of tools that I use when faced with difficult decisions.

Consider the third way.

When someone is struggling with a decision, the typical question I hear looks like “Should I do A or B?”. For example, Maria may ask: “ Should I fire this person or not?”, or Peter may ponder “Should I quit my job to work full time on my business?”. That type of question automatically raises a red flag in my brain. It tells me that both might profit from expanding their options. So my counter-question is usually something like: Have you considered other possibilities? Is there a third way? In Maria’s example, I would ask: Why do you want to fire the person, why is she not working? Can you assign her to other tasks where she will perform better, can you work on motivation? Can you do a 3-month trial? In Peter’s example, it might be: “Can you work 80% or 50% while you build your business? If you like your job, can you keep your job AND work on your business? Can you hire someone to help?”

Dare to imagine the ideal scenario, ask what if…

Over time, I’ve learned to pay attention to little signs that suggest I might be dealing with indecision. One big red flag is procrastination. If I’m looking to hire someone, for example, instead of making a decision, I might ask for one more interview, or look at the other candidates one more time, or just shun the whole thing by focusing on other tasks.

Procrastination usually signals I’m ambivalent about making a decision because I’m afraid of some vague negative consequences in the future. When this happens, I use another strategy I learned from a great post by Amanda Bond, CEO of the Ad Strategist. I ask “what if?”

First, you need to get clear on those worries by writing them down. If you get stuck when deciding to hire a new person, for example, you might fear that the person might not be a good fit, or because you’re not sure your business can cover their salary.

Then, you ask “What if?”, you speak to those worries by imagining a positive outcome, even better, the ideal outcome for that scenario: What if this person I’m hiring turns out to be the best thing for my company? What if she is a fantastic fit and the whole team loves her? What if she brings new clients and her work not only pays for her salary but doubles the company’s revenue?

Check for saturation

Saturation is a concept used in social science research to signify the moment when more research starts rendering redundant information.⁠ While you’re gathering information to make a decision, at some point you’ll notice the same evidence starts surfacing over and over again. This might happen when you are asking different people for opinions or advice, or when you are gathering information from written sources.

When you reach saturation, further information-gathering (at least using the same methods) is less likely to unearth anything truly new that could substantially alter the information you already have. At this point the balance tips and further information-gathering may become a waste of time. You’ve reached the moment of decision.

Figure out what are you’re waiting for

When we are wavering over a decision, can be for different valid reasons, and not necessarily fear of a negative outcome. Sometimes we’re weighing the pros and cons or figuring out the risks of each choice. Other times we are trying to ensure everybody is in agreement and we can reach a consensus. We could also be waiting for more information. Being clear about why you’re waiting can help make your decision easier and set a strategy for moving forward.

For example, if you are trying to get everyone in your team to agree to a decision, you can set up a strategy to foster consensus. You can also set a deadline in case no consensus can be reached, where you will either go with the majority or, lacking that, make the call yourself.

If you are waiting for more information, figure out where can you get it from and when can you obtain it. Try to imagine what this extra information would look like and if and how it would change your choice. Sometimes when we do this exercise we realize that this additional information, no matter what it says, won’t change our choice. In which case, waiting is superfluous.

In some instances, you may realize what you are actually waiting for is for something or someone to make the decision for you. Realize this won’t happen, go through a decision-making process, and make the call.

What other strategies do you use to make faster/better decisions?

Please share in the comments!

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