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In today’s working world, confident decision-making is a skill becoming more essential and more urgent for many workforce members regardless of their rank in a company. More people are making more decisions — and must make them faster — in an increasingly unpredictable environment. Whatever their role or industry, most professionals feel the need to make multiple decisions now.

In this fast-paced world, you’re likely to have one shot at making the right decision — not three. And if you get it wrong, you have less time to correct mistakes and reestablish credibility. John Austin, Professor of Leadership Studies at Fielding Graduate University and Udemy instructor, provides an introduction to critical thinking and decision making in Thinking Fast. This one-week online course is designed to help participants develop and implement effective decision-making skills when preparing for their first management role.

Focus on the process, not the outcome

A majority of decision-makers focus on outcomes, and most organizations reward or penalize people based on the outcomes of their decisions. This makes sense, given that assessing the results of decisions is typically easier and more objective than assessing decision-making processes themselves. Additionally, many people assume that good outcomes imply good decision-making processes, while poor outcomes signal the opposite. Consider how you would respond to an executive asking the following question: “I can promote one of three people. One has a record of 50% mistakes; the second, 25% mistakes; and the third, no mistakes. Who should I promote?” 

Did you guess the person with no mistakes? If so, consider this follow-up question, “How can an experienced professional get anything done without making mistakes? The only way to have a clean track record is to do nothing.” 

In this example, the executive should identify the most worthy candidate by focusing on processes. While good results are easy to focus on, a sound decision process is the clearest path to a favorable outcome. That’s because decision-makers should focus on what they can control.

To better understand the process vs. outcome dilemma, consider the steps that lead to a result of any kind:

The outcome of most decisions depends on the quality of the decision process and a mixture of execution and chance that can be difficult to sort through. You can’t control the factors that are up to chance, though you can seek greater influence on the factors under your control. Even with excellent implementation, a solid process can’t always guarantee a positive outcome. Bad luck happens to everyone. However, you have the best chance of a positive outcome if you have a good decision-making process and implementation. 

Understand the four stages of effective decision-making

In real life, the decision-making process is not quite as linear — or as distinct — as the four stages we’re about to detail suggest. Information derived from the “intelligence gathering” stage may cause you to reframe your decision entirely. Additionally, more complex problems may involve a series of smaller decisions, each of which may include several cycles of decision-making processes.

Let’s get into the four stages of successful decision-making.

  1. Framing: Framing determines the viewpoint from which decision-makers look at the issue. This step allows leaders to decide which aspects of a situation are relevant and prioritize based on that analysis.
  2. Gathering intelligence: When gathering intelligence, one must determine which facts are knowable while also assessing the “unknowables” of a situation. It’s essential to avoid decision pitfalls like overconfidence in current beliefs and biased information-seeking.
  3. Using process to drive conclusion: Framing and intelligence-gathering don’t guarantee a good decision. A systematic approach to arriving at a conclusion results in more accurate and efficent choices than through unorganized thinking. This is particularly true within group settings. 
  4. Learning from experience: Only by learning from the results of past decisions can decision-makers continually improve their long-term results. In fact, learning can begin when a decision is first implemented. Early refinements to the decision or implementation plan can mean the difference between success or failure.

This process is a framework, not a set of rules. Follow the four stages as many times as needed until a decision is made. Be aware, though, that the first three stages can’t be skipped and must be completed in order to reach your desired outcome. 

Deciding how to decide

While these four decision stages help guide a strong decision process, expert decision-makers know they must devote a portion of their time to making choices about the decision process itself. These choices are likely to determine the character of the entire effort. Before starting on the four stages of effective decision-making, you’ll need to undertake a preliminary stage. We call this preliminary assessment the “metadecision.” The importance of the metadecision was well-expressed by American educator John Dewey: “A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.” This preliminary decision stage is when you evaluate the nature of the decision, confirm what it is you need to decide, identify the most important stages of the process, evaluate how much time to devote to each stage, and devise a plan for managing the decision.

Interested in learning more about how you can leverage effective decision-making in your company’s day-to-day operations? If so, click here to explore the decision-making courses available on the Udemy platform.

Page Last Updated: April 2022