Nutshell: Consequences, consequences – when not making a decision is a decision in itself

Written by
Future Talent Learning

Published
15 Dec 2020

15 Dec 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

Kreiner and Christensen’s Consequences Model offers an appealing call to bold and early action, but is it as simple as that?

American actress and comedian Lucille Ball may have been playing to type when she famously said “I’d rather regret the things I have done than the things that I haven’t”, but most of us can still admire her chutzpah.

The idea that we’re all bold and decisive when it comes to getting things done can be seductive; not for us that paralysis when faced with taking the plunge, making and implementing those difficult decisions at work and beyond.

In reality, of course, it’s much harder to bridge that tricky gap between doubt and decision. As leaders, it’s a balance we face on a regular basis, as we weigh up the pros and cons of how and when to act, especially when the decisions are complex and the stakes high. We may know intellectually that we will never have all the information, expertise and time we need to make that perfect decision, but it’s tempting to hold on anyway, just that little bit longer, until we can be as sure as possible that acting will lead to the outcomes we really want.

Not making that decision, though, is a decision in itself – and not always a wise one. According to Danish organisational theorists Kristian Kreiner and Søren Christensen, when we have doubts about complex choice, our natural tendency is to defer. But waiting too long can lead to the kind of consequences none of us crave, including missed opportunities, uncertainty among our colleagues or lack of self-confidence.

Boldness in the face of ambiguity

Kreiner and Christensen’s Consequences Model plots the trade-off between the time it takes to make a decision and the amount of information available at the time the decision is taken.

In the model, the dotted line shows how our knowledge of any situation tends to increase over time. Meanwhile, the consequences of our decisions are higher when our knowledge is low, and tail off as our knowledge increases.

They argue that the greatest opportunity for impact is precisely at the point when what we know may be limited or unclear. We may be making a decision with minimal information, but to make that impact, we need to be comfortable operating without perfect knowledge. If we wait too long for the knowledge we need, in order to be sure we’re making the right move, we’re likely to lose out.

It’s an intriguing argument that provides plenty of food for thought; we only need think of any number of early adopters and pioneers who went for it – and reaped the rewards. Choosing courageous action over inaction has a certain ring to it, a decisiveness and sense of purpose that are often seen as the hallmarks of successful leaders. It’s also true that the risks of inaction can be considerable: indecision, prevarication and perfectionism can get in the way of even the most routine decision making.

The downside, of course, is that opting for quick impact over more considered knowledge gathering is not always a positive. Heightening the impact of negative rather than positive consequences is not a good look. If we choose to adopt the Consequences Model for the wrong decisions, or get the timing wrong, we risk making a bad decision worse.

So, what to do?

Kreiner and Christensen’s model reminds us that decision making is always a matter of judging when those knowledge and time lines intersect for maximum effectiveness. Maybe we can accelerate that information gathering stage or anticipate in advance scenarios we’re likely to encounter to allow us to act quicker and still be better informed. Maybe deferring is the right choice, but we’ll be intentional and deliberate about why we’re choosing not to act and communicate our reasons to our stakeholders.  

Above all, we need to understand and become comfortable with the central dilemma of decision making: the need to gauge the risks and consequences of acting under what will invariably be imperfect conditions – and act accordingly.

 

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