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The Surprising True Story Of Better Decisions at Work

Erik Larson Aug 21, 2019 8:17:00 AM
We often need the help of an artist to better understand the world. I recently had that experience while working with the amazing illustrator Aaron Fernandez to tell the story of how to make work better through better decision making.

For the past several years I’ve run a decision software startup in San Francisco based on the behavioral science of decision-making. We are on a mission to discover what key practices make the biggest difference for more transparent and inclusive, better and faster decisions at work.

We dived deep into a sea of data from tens of thousands of decisions across hundreds of companies. We tracked a thousand significant business decisions at our own company from concept to completion. We ran hundreds of experiments on everything from New Year’s resolutions and failed goals to age and gender diversity.

So we have a lot of data and examples, some surprising and some a little sad. It is altogether too much to hold in your head, let alone your heart. But while trying to explain it all in human terms through art, the dross fell away and the gems emerged:

  • The big truth of what our decisions are about.
  • The arc of our interconnected decision cycles.
  • The small practices that make work better through better decision making. 

Here’s the story.

All Decisions Are About Changes That Matter To People

All decisions are about either creating or reacting to meaningful changes in the world. This is the root of our problems with decision-making, especially at work.

Most people don’t like change, and even people who like to make change happen often don’t like having change imposed on them. People want predictable outcomes, and yet decision-driven change is inherently unpredictable in even moderately complex business situations. Everyone wants to be in the loop quickly about decisions that affect their work, and yet the people “in the room” when decisions are made have a very hard time backtracking to step into the shoes of everyone else who needs to be brought up to speed.

For these reasons and similar ones, leadership decisions are now and will probably always be a human endeavor -- AIs can do the numbers faster and faster, but they don’t care about the way decisions are made and what happens afterwards. So as robots continue to speed up the pace of business, driving more and more decisions, the pain of leadership decision-making will only grow.

We All Follow The Same Decision Cycle

Sometimes a poorly made decision turns out fine, and even the best-made decisions are subject to the vagaries of chance. However, it’s possible for every decision cycle to happen fast without sacrificing quality, getting results as good or better than we expect.

All well-made decisions follow the same arc, and we all have the same pitfalls to avoid along the way.

Framing The Change

The Decision Cycle -- Framing.

A decision starts with framing the change -- what problem are we trying to solve? We usually frame it too narrowly, so we need to put conscious effort into opening our minds and widening the frame. We can start doing that by thinking about the most important goals the decision will impact, and also by doing goldilocks analysis -- neither too much or too little -- just enough to understand the problem we face. And the best way to open our framing is to invite people to weigh in and help.

Inviting People To Weigh In

The Decision Cycle -- Inviting.

A decision at work impacts other people, and the more we include their broader perspectives and let them weigh in early on, the more clearly we will see the problem we’re trying to solve and the more good ideas will emerge. Like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, inviting diverse teammates to weigh in with different views reveals the reality of the decision we need to make and opens up our options. It feels like what we really need to do is close them down, but not yet.

The Magical Moment Of Deciding

The Decision Cycle -- Deciding.

This is a magical moment for people. Before we decide, it feels like we are narrowing down our options -- decide comes from Latin for “to cut off” -- we are choosing just one of many doors and it’s hard to do. At the same time we need to move fast, we feel urgency. Then once we decide, we walk through the door, and suddenly we see infinite opportunities in front of our team, and the decision gives everyone involved super-power focus to march forward.

Announcing To Bring People Along

The Decision Cycle -- Announcing.

Now other people who weren’t in the room but who will be touched by the decision need to learn about it. As people who were in the room, we are excited and focused on the new post-decision world, and our focus acts like blinders that make it hard to see how the decision looks to our other teammates stuck in the old pre-decision world. As deciders we need to give everyone else a small, clear version of the same deciding experience we went through. We need to bring them through the door and into the new world, too.

Supporting Even If We Disagree

The decision cycle -- supporting.

Decisions catch people’s attention, so most will agree and just want to push forward. And then sometimes the reality of a new decision sparks a new idea or highlights a pitfall that was hidden. That is a gift. Our decision team needs to be open and accept the gift. The decision may feel in the past with the door closed behind us, but in reality not much about the decision has happened yet -- it is still early and fairly easy to nudge in a better direction. Then when the direction is settled everyone needs to support and commit even if they disagree, because decisions demand action. 

Acting To Create Change

The decision cycle -- acting.

Our decisions motivate us to create a new world. We all push hard, make change happen, create a new reality together. At first we are on the same page, our minds are linked and our actions are coordinated. As time passes, the memory of our original decision fades, even as our actions create concrete changes in the world. At the same time, the outside world reacts to our decision with its own diverging changes.

Evolving For The Next Decision Cycle

The decision cycle -- evolving.

For better or worse, the world always has a say in how our decisions turn out. We need to keep track and compare what we imagined would happen when we first decided with the way things actually go down. If we don’t, then sometimes bad decisions stick around like zombies, and sometimes good decisions are cut off before they bloom. We need to use what happens to evolve our thinking and keep opening wider frames for our next decision cycles.

What You Can Do

While the art tells a clear story, we know from our surprising and sometimes sad research that improving decision behavior at work can be very difficult. Here are three steps you can take to get started:

  • Commit To Conscious Effort: Decisions mostly emerge from unconscious and emotion-driven instincts. This makes it hard to notice when the decision cycle starts and even harder to steer around pitfalls once it does. Improving your decisions will never be a mindless habit -- it will be a conscious effort every time.
  • Focus Down And Then Up And Out: It’s easiest for decision-making improvements to flow down from the top, so start with your own team first. Create examples of great decision cycles run by your own team before pushing change up the chain or out to peers. Change is much easier when others can learn from your concrete success.
  • Keep Learning And Sharing About Decisions At Work: Decision-making is the most important business activity and yet the decision cycle at work is relatively unstudied. That means there is lots to learn, and lots to share with your colleagues. See our research into decision checklists, decision inclusion and decision practices as good places to start.

Here’s to making work better thorough better decision making!