A Helpful Sequence of Steps for Decision-Making

Decision-making can get complicated and messy, particularly when you face lots of options, lots of parameters, and lots of interplay between them all. So it’s helpful to have in mind a sequence of steps to help you wade through this complexity and keep your thoughts on track as you strive toward a satisfactory solution.

Here’s one sensible sequence of steps you may find fruitful:

Step 1: Make What’s Vague More Concrete – Forge A Document

Simple decisions can almost make themselves. But when the situation and factors involved with an upcoming decision are complex and detailed, it’s easy to overlook or undervalue important elements. That’s why it’s helpful to forge a document that:

  • Describes the decision-related environment,
  • Enumerates the decision’s relevant factors and considerations,
  • Makes explicit the linkages between all the above, and
  • Itemizes the available variables and alternatives.

It helps to commit this information to writing, and – as its sheer quantity increases – perhaps even create a Table of Contents and an Index that helps you more quickly access the relevant information if, as, and when needed. The time and effort required to do this “meta” work gets repaid many times over as you repeatedly process and evaluate the information on your way to reaching a decision.

Step 2: Identify and Clarify Your Objectives

As Yogi Berra famously said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” But you don’t have to be a Hall of Fame baseball player to understand the primary basis for judging the effectiveness of a decision is how closely it brings you to your goals.

Accordingly, identifying and clarifying your objectives in making a decision should come very early in your decision-making process, and should illuminate all the rest of your efforts to choose the best course of action – or, in some cases, inaction.

Step 3: Lay Out Your Options

Once you know where you are going, you can begin to develop, organize, and elaborate on the various options available for getting there. These options can include:

  • Your various courses of action or inaction.
  • Whatever alternatives and variations may be available for each course of action.
  • All the strategies, tactics, methods, and tools you might employ in your efforts to reach your goal(s).

You can lay out these details like a map, sketching out different routes toward your goal(s). Or you may prefer lists, mind-maps, Gantt charts, dashboards, or some other technique. As you visualize the possibilities, you may also discover “crossover” opportunities that let you start out on one route, then later change – one or more times – to a different one.

Eventually, you’ll want to plan out the best of all possible routes. But first….

Step 4: Evaluate the Pros and Cons

Driving from Denver to Chicago, you have a wide choice of routes. This immediately brings up the question: “Which route is the ‘best’ for you to pursue?”

Do this same kind of evaluation on your decision-making options. Think in terms of positives and negatives: what seems “good” or “bad” about each possibility. Note that pursuing a “good” opportunity along one route can sometimes lead you toward a “bad” opportunity later on – or vice versa.

Don’t settle for simple good/bad evaluations. You’ll be better able to choose the “best” route if you rate each pro or con consideration on a sliding scale from “great” or “helpful” to “terrible” or even “catastrophic.”

One approach to this would be to rank each outcome from +10 to -10, wonderful to catastrophic. Then you can add up the scores along the various routes to see how they rank against each other.

You may also want to consider intangible implications and consequences that are difficult to award an exact numerical score.

Step 5: Gain Final Clarity

At this point, your decision-making options and trade-offs are fairly clear. But you may still need to do more work before your best available course of action leaps off the page at you.

For example, you may need to find out more about a few of the alternatives or options, such as their second- or third-order pros and cons, or their likely consequences with particular stakeholders. Also, take the time now to clean up any logical inconsistencies, murky waters, or factual uncertainties.

When you have done all this homework, you will probably begin to see your most favorable choice or choices. If you see more than one, and you can’t determine that any one of them is clearly better than any other, here’s one final criterion to use in making your decision:

Make the choice that produces the best possible outcome in the widest range of scenarios.

This is an advantageous approach because you can never be sure about exactly how the future will unfold. With this approach, your decision will have the best chance of working out well, no matter what actually happens in your work and your life.

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