New ways to make tough decisions

As the business world becomes more complex, decision-making is becoming more complex as well. Just think of the complexities in dealing with risk, issue and crisis decision-making these days. And if you are a member of your organization’s executive team – a role requiring you to confront operational problems – many decisions would be even more complex and longer-term. So how can you use more innovative ways to reach solutions? Read here to find out about how to use innovative methods to make tough decisions.

Various researchers have developed tools for making better choices. These tools help you to bring new perspectives to the situation confronting you, to find new angles and new dimensions to reach solutions.

Here’s how you can use some new tools to help make tough decisions – based on a 2018 article in the New York Times:

Ways to make tough decisions

Pros and cons list

This is a simple, traditional way to help with decision-making. Just make a list of pros and cons. The pros-versus-cons list remains perhaps the most-used technique for making a complex decision. Of course, this merely lists the various factors without putting a weight according to the perceived importance of each factor. A limitation of such a list is that you may not necessarily have thought of all the relevant factors involved.

Find alternatives

A feature of a bad decision is only considering two options. Adding a third alternative increases the odds of success. Instead of asking “whether or not,” expand your pool of options by asking “which one?”

Finding alternatives to any course of action is emerging as an important insight from research. In one study, only 15% of decisions involved a stage where the decision makers actively sought out a new option beyond the initial choices on the table. A later study found that only 29% of organizational decision makers considered more than one alternative. In other words, around 70% of decision-makers are asking for trouble.

Researchers have found that considering a greater number of alternatives increased the chances of success with decisions. In one study, participants who considered only one alternative ultimately judged half of their decisions a failure, while decisions that involved at least two alternatives were felt to be successful two-thirds of the time.

The lesson is clear: If you find yourself considering an “either/or” question, you are almost always better off turning it into a “which one” question that gives you more available options.

Increasing the options helps you to make tough decisions

What’s the best way to expand your range of options? Researchers suggest you should try diversifying the group of people involved in the decision process.

Groups of similar people – whether they are in the same business discipline, residential location, income, gender, age, or other demographic – tend to reach decisions too quickly. These homogeneous groups settle early on a most-likely scenario and don’t question their assumptions because everyone at the table seems to have the same mindset – a definite bias.

A 2008 study came to a seemingly counterintuitive finding: More diverse groups were better at reaching the truth, and they were also far less (over-)confident in the decisions they made. They were more likely to be right and, at the same time, more open to the possibility that they might be wrong.

Scenario planning

Once you have alternatives, how are you supposed to assess them? One approach, known as scenario planning, was developed by management consultants in the 1970s to help organizations make tough decisions during the worldwide oil supply crisis at the time, and involves imagining three different future environments for each alternative:

  • Develop one story where things get better,
  • one where they get worse,
  • and one where they get weird.

The “premortem”

Psychologist Gary Klein developed a technique called a premortem. Opposite of a post-mortem, the process involves asking people to imagine it is now months in the future and their plan has been completed. But it failed. They have to explain why they think it failed.

The premortem is an effective way to identify the potential flaws in a decision. A whole range of bad cognitive habits — from groupthink to confirmation bias — tends to blind us to the potential pitfalls of a decision once we have committed to it. It isn’t enough to simply ask yourself, “Are there any flaws in this plan that I have missed?” By forcing yourself to imagine scenarios where the decision turned out to be disastrous, you can think your way around those blind spots and that false sense of confidence.

The value model

The value model is a more powerful version of the pros and cons list. It actually involves a matrix.

For example, when you have to make a tough decision involving important stakeholders, write down a list of the most important factors relating to stakeholders who would be involved in the issue. Give each of those factors a “weight,” a numerical measure of its importance to you. In one version of this approach, you give each factor a weighting between 0 and 10. For instance, you might be evaluating which stakeholder variables are most important to you. You start by listing several of the most important overall factors, such as stakeholder influence with legislators, the strength of their media connections, etc.

After scoring the importance of each of the relevant factors, you give a score for each stakeholder on each of those factors. Then you multiply the score for each factor by the score you have given each stakeholder on those factors.

Stakeholder F. For instance, the most important factor in your estimation is access to decision makers, so you might allocate a score of 10 out of 10 for that factor, as in the left hand column in the image below. Then you might give a score of 4 out of 5 for that stakeholder’s considerable access to decision makers relevant to the issue. Multiplying 10 x 4 = 40 for that stakeholder on their access to important decision makers.

Stakeholder G. This stakeholder might have moderate influence with decision makers, so their score might be 10 x 3 for the strength of their decision-maker connections factor on that issue.

Moving the next attribute, you might give a score of 8 out of 10 on the numerical importance of the stakeholder attribute of access to the media specific to the particular issue. Stakeholder F’s score on media connections relating to the issue would be 3 because they only have a moderate rating for their media connections. So, multiplying 8 x 3 = 24.

Stakeholder G’s overall score on the media connections factor may be 8 x 3 = 24 as well, so you can note that score for both stakeholders on their media access.

The same process can be followed for as many factors you consider relevant to a particular issue, and as many stakeholders you consider relevant to the issue.

Then add up each stakeholder’s total score over, say, five factors. Stakeholder F might have a total score of something like 119, as shown below, while stakeholder G might have a total lower than that. Obviously, stakeholder F is overall more important to you, and you would give priority to activities relating to that stakeholder compared with stakeholder G. This process can be followed until all stakeholders have been considered.

This example related to stakeholders, but you can use the process for other types of situations as well. You can list all the important factors, such as a particular course of action and how it would affect certain groups or entities, giving each factor a score for its importance (score A). Then you can list how the entity scores on that factor (score B). Multiply A x B to reach a total for that entity on that factor. Repeat for other factors and total up the score for each entity and compare with the total scores for other entities. This enables you to reach a decision about which entity has the most value for you.

These tools can help you to reach decisions with a greater chance of success than decisions limited by traditional approaches. Try them and see how they can help you to make tough decisions more effectively.

A consolation if needed

Despite using an innovative method to make a tough decision, you might find the decision is not successful. In that case, you may find it helpful to read my article on how to fix a bad decision.

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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