The freedom to make choices should be liberating, but few aspects of organisational leadership are more perplexing, even oppressive, than the process of making decisions. Exemplary executives actively and effectively choose from among various opportunities and tradeoffs to resolve major dilemmas and to align their organisations around focused priorities. Most of you would agree that this is an increasingly rare phenomenon in organisations today.
Volition is what separates exemplary executives from their second-best counterparts. The ability to declare their views, engage others’ ideas, analyse the available data for insights, weigh the alternatives, and own the final call inspires a markedly higher degree of confidence and focus among those they lead.
Fundamentals of choice
At the heart of great decision making lies a balance between instinct and analytics. On one end of the continuum are leaders who “trust their guts.” They combine experience and emotion – conviction, anger, fear, excitement – into a well-developed intuition of choice. On the other end of the continuum is the leader who relies on an abundance of data and the need to mine it exhaustively for insights and perspective to address the particular decision or problem they face. These executives often have teams of analysts compare and contrast fact bases to create the wisdom upon which they act. Great choice makers can function along this continuum. They are agile in their application of approach and are able to choose the most appropriate for their situation.
In their book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, Chip and Dan Heath describe the “four villains of decision making.” These villains live along the instinct/analytics continuum. Two villains on the analytics end of the continuum are binaryism and confirmation bias. The two villains at the instinct end of the continuum are short-term emotion and over-confidence.
Binaryism happens when executives get stuck in the tyranny of only two choices and must debate the “either or” factors of the two options. Once a decision has been reduced to only two options, the likelihood of failure is much higher. Confirmation bias happens when leaders go looking for the answer they want in the available data. Exceptional executives resist the temptation to impose the answer they want, or be backed into binary corners. They widen the menu of available options and listen closely to multiple and contradicting interpretations of the data.
On the instinct end of the continuum, exceptional executives know when to trust their emotions and know when their own fears, prejudices, ambitions, and confidence may be clouding their judgment. While emotion and conviction are important aspects of constructing a choice that can actually be implemented, exemplary executives know how and when to detach themselves and not allow objectivity to be obscured by strong emotions.
Even exemplary executives can suffer flat sides in their choice making. Examples include pursuing too much innovation too fast, insufficient orientation to detail, a lack of analytic ability, an over-reliance on numbers, and becoming too isolated in decision making from critical stakeholders, to name a few.
Exceptional executives have well-defined processes for constructing the choices needed for their organisations to advance. They use a healthy balance of instinct and analysis and blend their own ideas with the voices of others into focused choices that align their organisations in a common direction around chosen priorities. They work to avoid the all too common predicament of too many unfocused priorities, misalignment among leaders about resource allocation, a lack of clarity about who has the authority to make the call and under what conditions, and a proliferation of competing, slanted fact bases that drive individual agendas at the expense of enterprise solutions.