How to Make Decisions

Top 10 ways to make better decisions

Decisions, decisions! Our lives are full of them, from the small and mundane, such as what to wear or eat, to the life-changing, such as whether to get married and to whom, what job to take and how to bring up our children. We jealously guard our right to choose. It is central to our individuality: the very definition of free will. Yet sometimes we make bad decisions that leave us unhappy or full of regret. Can science help?

Making good decisions requires us to balance the seemingly antithetical forces of emotion and rationality. We must be able to predict the future, accurately perceive the present situation, have insight into the minds of others and deal with uncertainty.

Most of us are ignorant of the mental processes that lie behind our decisions, but this has become a hot topic for investigation, and luckily what psychologists and neurobiologists are finding may help us all make better choices. Here we bring together some of their many fascinating discoveries in the New Scientist guide to making up your mind.

How to Make Decisions

This process will ensure that you make a good decision in a complex situation, but it may be unnecessarily complicated for small or simple decisions. In these cases, jump to Step 5.

Step 1: Investigate the Situation in Detail

Start by considering the decision in the context of the problem it is intended to address. You need to determine whether the stated problem is the real issue, or just a symptom of something deeper.

Look beyond the obvious. It may be that your objective can be approached in isolation, but it’s more likely that there are a number of interrelated factors to consider. Changes made in one department, for example, could have knock-on effects elsewhere, making the change counterproductive.

Investigative Tools:

Step 2: Create a Constructive Environment for Your Decision

This is especially true when you have to rely on other people to implement a decision that you’re responsible for. You’ll need to identify who to include in the process and who will be part of any final decision-making group, which will ideally comprise just five to seven people.

Enable people to contribute to the discussions without any fear of the other participants rejecting them and their ideas. Make sure that everyone recognizes that the objective is to make the best decision possible in the circumstances, without blame.

Collaboration Tools:

Step 3: Generate Good Alternatives to Decide Between

The wider the options you explore, the better your final decision is likely to be. Generating a number of different options may seem to make your decision more complicated at first, but the act of coming up with alternatives forces you to dig deeper and to look at the problem from different angles.

This is when it can be helpful to employ a variety of creative thinking techniques. These can help you to step outside your normal patterns of thinking and come up with some truly innovative solutions.

Brainstorming is probably the most popular method of generating ideas, but for more tips on how to examine your situation from new perspectives, and how to organize ideas into manageable themes and groups, see the Mind Tools resources in the box, below.

Creativity Tools:

Step 4: Explore Your Options

Almost every decision involves some degree of risk. You’ll need a structured approach for assessing threats and evaluating the probability of adverse events occurring – and what they might cost to manage. You’ll also want to examine the ethical impact of each option, and how that might sit with your personal and organizational values.

Analysis Tools:

Step 5: Select the Best Solution

If you have various criteria to consider, use Decision Matrix Analysis to compare them reliably and rigorously. Or, if you want to determine which ones should carry most weight in your decision, conduct a Paired Comparison Analysis.

When anonymity is important, decision-makers dislike one another, or there is a tendency for certain individuals to dominate the process, use the Delphi Technique to reach a fair and impartial decision. This uses cycles of anonymous, written discussion and argument, managed by a facilitator. Participants do not meet, and sometimes they don’t even know who else is involved.

If you’re working with an established team, Hartnett’s Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making Model is useful for encouraging everyone to participate in making the decision. Or, if you’re working with several different teams, or a particularly large group, assign responsibility for each stage of the decision-making process with Bain’s RAPID Framework, so that everyone understands their responsibilities and any potential in-fighting can be avoided.

Decision-Making Tools:

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Step 6: Evaluate Your Plan

After all the effort and hard work you’ve invested in evaluating and selecting alternatives, it can be tempting to forge ahead at this stage. But now, more than ever, is the time to “sense check” your decision. After all, hindsight is great for identifying why things have gone wrong, but it’s far better to prevent mistakes from happening in the first place!

Your final decision is only as good as the facts and research you used to make it. Make sure that your information is trustworthy, and that you’ve done your best not to “cherry pick” data. This will help you avoid confirmation bias, a common psychological bias in decision making.

Discuss your preliminary conclusions with important stakeholders to enable them to spot flaws, make recommendations, and support your conclusions. Listen to your own intuition, too, and quietly and methodically test assumptions and decisions against your own experience. BRAIN BRAN BRAND is a useful tool for this. If you have any doubts, examine them thoroughly to work out what’s troubling you.

Use Blindspot Analysis to review whether you’ve fallen prey to problems like over-confidence, escalating commitment, or groupthink. And consider checking the logical structure of your process with the Ladder of Inference, to make sure that a well-founded and consistent decision emerges at the end.

Evaluation Tools:

Step 7: Communicate Your Decision, and Take Action

Get them involved in implementing the solution by discussing how and why you arrived at your decision. The more information you provide about risks and projected benefits, the more likely people will be to support it.

If people point out a flaw in your process as a result, have the humility to welcome their input and review your plans appropriately – it’s much better to do this now, cheaply, than having to do it expensively (and embarrassingly) if your plans have failed.

Change Management Tools:

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How to make decisions

The decision-making process

  1. Identify the decision. Recognize the need for you to make a decision, and figure out (roughly) what the decision will entail.
  2. Determine your goals. Figure out what you’re hoping to achieve with the decision, and how important each goal is to you.
  3. Gather information. Collect the information that you’ll need in order to make a decision.
  4. Identify your options. Figure out which options are available to you.
  5. Evaluate your options. Identify the pros and cons of the available options, especially as they pertain to your goals.
  6. Select your preferred option. Rank the different options based on their pros and cons, and choose the one that’s best for you.

If necessary, it can be beneficial to move back and forth between these steps and make modifications as you go along. For example, if you discover that none of the available options will help you achieve your main goal, you can go back and reassess your goals, and then gather more information accordingly.

  • Create an optimal environment for decision making. You can do this in various ways, at any point in the decision-making process. For example, if you worry that the people you’re around now will hinder your ability to properly evaluate your options, you can postpone this step until you’re alone.
  • Identify and account for possible obstacles to your decision-making. It’s best to do this early on in the decision-making process, though you can do this at any step. For example, if you know that it’s going to be difficult for you to gather information and that this might cause you to rush into a bad decision, you can discuss the issue with a trusted person who will help ensure that you don’t make a decision until you’ve gathered all the necessary information.
  • Create an implementation plan. It’s sometimes beneficial to plan how exactly you will implement your decision. This can increase the likelihood that you will do so, and in some cases, the act of creating an implementation plan can help with the decision-making process itself, for example by helping you internalize the consequences of your choice, or by helping you determine how practical your chosen course of action is.
  • Review your decision. It’s sometimes beneficial to review your decision and the decision-making process that led to it, before you take action, in order to make sure that you’ve made the best possible decision. In addition, it can also be beneficial to revisit decisions after you see their consequences, in order to learn how to improve your decision-making process.

Note that, in addition to following this process, there are other things that you can do to improve your decision-making. As such, in the following sub-sections you will see additional tips and techniques that will help you improve your decision-making.

Each sub-section focuses on a different type of decisions, including good decisions, fast decisions, and hard decisions, and there are generally tradeoffs between the different approaches that are recommended below. For example, good decisions might take longer to make, while fast decisions might not be as good.

It’s up to you to decide what to optimize for, and you will likely prioritize different things in different situations. For example, when it comes to making relatively trivial decisions, such as what to order at a restaurant, you will generally want to prioritize speed, but when it comes to important life-changing decisions, such as which career path to follow, you will generally want to prioritize making the best decision that you can.

How to make good decisions

To make good decisions, you should generally go through every step of the decision-making process before you reach a decision, and make sure to conduct each step properly. To help ensure that you do this, you can go through each step in a way the forces you to be explicit with your reasoning, for example by outlining it aloud or in writing.

When doing this, you should watch for issues that could interfere with your decision-making, such as cognitive biases, and deal with them, primarily through the use of appropriate debiasing techniques. For example, if you’re in a situation where the egocentric bias is making it hard for you to see things from a different perspective, you can use self-distancing, and ask yourself what advice you would give to a friend if they were in your situation. This particular technique can be beneficial in a wide range of situations, and as one book on the topic states:

“The advice we give others, then, has two big advantages: It naturally prioritizes the most important factors in the decision, and it downplays short-term emotions. That’s why, in helping us to break a decision logjam, the single most effective question may be: What would I tell my best friend to do in this situation?”

Common questions about making decisions

Should I let my emotions dictate my decisions?

You should take your emotions into account as part of your decision-making process, but you shouldn’t let your emotions cloud your judgment in a way that causes you to make bad decisions. For example, when it comes to deciding whether to end a romantic relationship, you should take into account important emotional considerations, such as how you feel about your partner. However, you should not let your feelings for your partner lead you to conduct a flawed decision-making process, for instance by causing you to ignore serious negative things that this person did to you.

How can I be sure I’m making the right decision?

You can be relatively certain that you’re making the right decision by taking care to conduct a proper decision-making process, which includes all the relevant steps such as gathering information and evaluating options, while also taking care to avoid common issues, such as cognitive biases, that could interfere with your decision-making. In addition, you can increase your certainty in your decision by reviewing your decision-making process after you complete it, and by asking for feedback on it and on your decision from relevant individuals.

However, that said, there will be many situations where you can’t be absolutely certain that you’re making the right decision. To avoid regret and indecision, it’s important to accept this, and to tell yourself that you’re making the best decision that you can, based on what you know.

What if I make the wrong decision?

No matter how careful you are in your decision-making, there is almost always the possibility that the choice that you make will be “wrong” in some way, meaning that it will lead you to a worse outcome compared to some alternative that you had available. Because this is generally impossible to avoid, all you can do is accept the possibility that it will happen, and try to make the best possible decision that you can, by following a proper decision-making process.

“We can’t know when we make a choice whether it will be successful. Success emerges from the quality of the decisions we make and the quantity of luck we receive. We can’t control luck. But we can control the way we make choices.”

— From “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work“

That said, in many cases, you’ll discover that even if you do make the wrong choice, the outcome isn’t as bad as you thought, for example because the decision is partly reversible. If you do find yourself having made the wrong decision, your main goal should be to avoid obsessing and punishing yourself over it. Instead, you should figure out what you can learn from your experience so you can make better decisions in the future, and then start looking at what you can do to move forward past this decision.

How can I avoid regretting my decisions?

There are two main ways to minimize regret toward the decisions that you make. The first is to make decisions in a way that minimizes the likelihood of future regret, and the second is to change the way you view your decisions after you’ve made them.

When it comes to making decisions in a way that minimizes regret, you should do what you can to make reasonably good decisions, which means, for example, that you should generally follow all the necessary steps of a proper decision-making process. This reduces the likelihood that you’ll make bad decisions that you’ll later regret, and will also help you know later that you’ve made a good decision given the circumstances and what you knew at the time.

In addition, where appropriate, the book “The Paradox of Choice” suggests that you can adopt the standards of a satisficer, by trying to make decisions that are good enough given the circumstances, rather than those of a maximizer, who tries to always make the best possible decision.

The book also suggests that to minimize future regret, you should reduce the number of options that you consider before making a decision. This aligns with research on the topic, which shows that regret generally arises from comparisons between the option that you select and the alternatives that you chose to forgo.

Finally, when it comes to making decisions in a way that minimizes regret in the long-term, note that people often regret indecision and inaction more than they do bad choices. As noted in The Paradox of Choice:

“When asked about what they regret most in the last six months, people tend to identify actions that didn’t meet expectations. But when asked about what they regret most when they look back on their lives as a whole, people tend to identify failures to act.”

However, keep in mind that regret is influenced by various other situational and personal factors. For example, inaction tends to lead to more regret when a decision is made in response to negative prior outcomes (a phenomenon referred to as the inaction effect), while taking action tends to lead to more regret when making decisions in response to prior outcomes that were positive, or when making decisions in isolation (a phenomenon referred to as the action effect). This is important to take into account when trying to make decisions in a way that minimizes regret, because it means that decisions that you make should be tailored to you and to your specific circumstances, rather than based entirely on general guidelines.

How to make decisions

6 Tips for Making Better Decisions

The one thing everyone on the planet has in common is the undeniable fact we’ve all made our fair share of regrettable decisions. Show me someone who hasn’t made a bad decision and I’ll show you someone who is either not being honest, or someone who avoids decisioning at all costs. Making sound decisions is a skill set that needs to be developed like any other. As a person who works with CEOs on a daily basis, I can tell you with great certainty all leaders are not created equal when it comes to the competency of their decisioning skills. Nothing will test your leadership mettle more than your ability to make decisions.

Why do leaders fail? They make poor choices that lead to bad decisions. And in some cases they compound bad decision upon bad decision. You cannot separate leadership from decisioning, for like it or not, they are inexorably linked. Put simply, the outcome of a leader’s choices and decisions can, and usually will, make or break them. The fact of the matter is that senior executives who rise to the C-suite do so largely based upon their ability to consistently make sound decisions. What most fail to realize is while it may take years of solid decision making to reach the boardroom, it often times only takes one bad decision to fall from the ivory tower. As much as you may wish it wasn’t so, when it comes to being a leader you’re really only as good as your last decision.

Here’s the thing – even leaders who don’t fail make bad decisions from time-to-time. When I reflect back upon the poor decisions I’ve made, it’s not that I wasn’t capable of making the correct decision, but for whatever reason I failed to use sound decisioning methodology. Gut instincts can only take you so far in life, and anyone who operates outside of a sound decisioning framework will eventually fall prey to an act of oversight, misinformation, misunderstanding, manipulation, impulsivity or some other negative influencing factor.

The first key in understanding how to make great decisions is learning how to synthesize the overwhelming amount incoming information leaders must deal with on a daily basis, while making the best decisions possible in a timely fashion. The key to dealing with the voluminous amounts of information is as simple as becoming discerning surrounding the filtering of various inputs.

Understanding that a hierarchy of knowledge exists is critically important when attempting to make prudent decisions. News Flash – not all inputs should weigh equally in one’s decisioning process. By developing a qualitative and quantitative filtering mechanism for your decisioning process you can make better decisions in a shorter period of time. The hierarchy of knowledge is as follows:

  • Gut Instincts: This is an experiential and/or emotional filter that may often times have no current underpinning of hard analytical support. That said, in absence of other decisioning filters it can sometimes be all a person has to go on when making a decision. Even when more refined analytics are available, your instincts can often provide a very valuable gut check against the reasonability or bias of other inputs. The big take away here is that intuitive decisioning can be refined and improved. My advice is to actually work at becoming very discerning.
  • Data: Raw data is comprised of disparate facts, statistics, or random inputs that in-and-of-themselves hold little value. Making conclusions based on data in its raw form will lead to flawed decisions based on incomplete data sets.

Even though people often treat theory and opinion as fact, they are not one and the same. I have witnessed many a savvy executive blur the lines between fact and fiction resulting in an ill advised decision when decisions are made under extreme pressure and outside of a sound decisioning framework. Decisions made at the gut instinct or data level can be made quickly, but offer a higher level of risk. Decisioning at the information level affords a higher degree of risk management, but are still not as safe as those decisions based upon actionable knowledge.

Another aspect that needs to be factored into the decisioning process is the source of the input. I believe it was Cyrus the Great who said “diversity in counsel, unity in command” meaning that good leaders seek the counsel of others, but maintain control over the final decision. While most successful leaders subscribe to this theory, the real question in not whether you should seek counsel, but in fact where, and how much counsel you should seek. You see more input, or the wrong input, doesn’t necessarily add value to a decisioning process. Volume for the sake of volume will only tend to confuse matters, and seeking input from sources that can’t offer significant contributions is likely a waste of time. Two other issues that should be considered in your decisioning process as they relate to the source of input are as follows:

The Eight Elements of a Great Decision

As a new leader, learning to make good decisions without hesitation or procrastination is a capability that can set you apart from your peers. While others vacillate on tricky choices, your team could be hitting deadlines and producing the type of results that deliver true value. That’s something that will get you — and the team — noticed.

The only surefire way to evaluate the efficacy of a decision is to assess the outcomes. You’ll discover, over time, whether a decision was good, bad, or indifferent. But if you rely only on retrospective analysis, the path to better decisions can be tenuous: Hindsight is incredibly prone to attribution bias.

That said, if you had a checklist of attributes to prospectively evaluate a decision (like the one provided below), you could predict in advance whether or not it is likely to be a good one. Based on my experience, these are the eight core elements of great decisions.

Think how your decision will square with your values.

You might feel pressured by others (your boss, co-workers, friends, loved ones or family members) to make a decision that doesn’t feel right. That’s because it doesn’t square with your values . If you go ahead and fall in line with what others say you should do, you’ll be dissatisfied with the result. Always be true to your values, since they’re the core of who you are. Any decisions you make should align with them.

Remember that whatever decision you make isn’t the end of the process. Also important is taking the time to follow up on your chosen actions. Did they turn out as expected? Did you meet your objectives and arrive at your goal? If this is a decision you’ll likely make again, is there a way you can improve upon it? Can you revise the current action to make your choice better?


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