Get faster and better at decision making

EAs are constantly tasked with making decisions—some critical, others less so. It’s important we know what type of strategy to take when making decisions, so we can make them better and faster says Bryan Whitefield.

Here is the thing. You and I are good decision-makers. It’s everyone else that has the problem.

We all have the same problem. We are fallible. Our brains are really good but they are not perfect. Research shows that our decision success varies a lot based on the type of decision we are making. For example, research conducted in the operating of plant and machinery shows error rates as low as 0.04 percent for some decisions through to almost a 50 percent error rate on others.

It is well recognised that our decision making is influenced by a range of factors from our training and experience to the emotions we are feeling at a particular time. There have been decades of research by psychologists and behavioural scientists that demonstrate our failings. Yet, what do we do about it?

Unfortunately, the inconvenient truth is that we accept mediocrity in decision making. When someone gets a big decision wrong we say, “Everyone is entitled to a mistake. They will learn from it.” I get that, but with so much research into what affects our decision making, why aren’t we doing more about it?

One answer is that we have not taken the time to stop and think about the types of decisions we make. Which ones are more complex than others? Which ones are more important than others? When are the important and complex decisions being made, by whom and how? Is our approach good enough? A guy named Jeff Bezos who runs a little company called Amazon has two categories for decisions to guide him and his team. Type One decisions are consequential and irreversible. Type Two are consequential and reversible. Type One should be considered very seriously and needs time taken to get things right. Type Two should be considered, a decision made and then every member of the team needs to back the decision, even those that argued against it.

I doubt there is any argument by you that time should be taken over the Type One decisions. My question is what do you and others do about Type Two decisions? How do you get them right, fast?

Noble Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman is author of Thinking, Fast and Slow. He introduced the concept of System one and two thinking. Be careful with this, as his one and two are numbered opposite to Bezos. System one thinking is fast thinking like we do when we use a rule of thumb. For example, when the phone rings and drops out we think, “It’s a pocket dial or they will call back if it is important”. A perfectly reasonable decision, which is to ignore the dropped call.

System Two thinking is more logical and analytical. If the dropped call was from your kid’s school, your system two thinking may kick in. “Why would the school be calling me? Even if it dropped out, there is a reason for the call. Perhaps they have already moved to the next number on the list? Maybe it is an emergency? I think I’ll call just in case.” When I work with teams to help them with FaB decision making, I use a combination of the Kahneman and the Bezos approach. Bezos is essentially further categorising decisions that require System Two thinking into irreversible (Type One) and reversible (Type Two) decisions. I help teams identify from all their business as usual decisions, which ones can sometimes be more complex and important and then which of them are reversible or irreversible. That leaves us with three types of decisions for us to work on. Core, Complex and Critical.

Core decisions are taken care of through policy, process and systems, along with training. For Complex decisions, I help the team to design decision support tools. Ones each member of the team can use in isolation and with others if that is what is decided. For Critical decisions, I help them identify how they will be handled. Usually it is via a structured risk assessment.

As an EA you have the opportunity to observe how decisions are being made in your organisation. If you are observing problems, first start with your own decisions. Categorise them into Core, Complex and Critical and decide for yourself if you have the appropriate methods in use to ensure faster and better decision making.

Bryan Whitefield mentors executives in organisations to increase their influence and improve decisions across their organisation. He is the author of Winning Conversations: How to turn red tape into blue ribbon and delivers his Persuasive Adviser Program across all sectors of the economy.