Decisions, Decisions: 6 Steps for Making Confident, Growth-driving Choices
Leah Olson, Author
Being accountable for growth isn’t easy. Leaders are responsible for finding opportunities, investing big against them, mobilizing teams in new directions, and executing complex, transversal plans. Sound daunting? It often is. As an innovation and growth partner, we sit at clients’ deliberation tables, witnessing and working to alleviate the pains that arise. But increasingly, we see one challenge rising above the rest.
With solid choices in front of them, we observe leaders getting caught in analysis paralysis, unable to act even when informed by sound research or guided by thoughtful strategic roadmaps. And when we start losing opportunities to inaction, it’s time to diagnose the real problem and come up with a better path forward.
To succeed-whether in launching a new product, adopting new platforms, transforming the business model, or pursuing any new vision-leaders need to make committed, confident decisions. The world isn’t going to slow down for any of us. So there’s no better time to locate decision-making sticking points and get unstuck.
Why is Decision-making So Hard, Anyway?
Decision-making is difficult in two ways: logically and emotionally.
Decision-making is logically hard because our world is increasingly complex and interdependent. It’s tempting to think that the more data we have, the more confident we’ll feel about what to do next. But often enough, each layer of understanding only reveals more intricacies and provokes more questions. Leaders can end up feeling like they have both too much and too little information.
Decision-making is emotionally hard because decisions do not equal control over outcomes, and that’s scary. Feeling out of control can lead to fatalism ( “It doesn’t matter what I do, anyway!”)or a never-ending grind of anxiety and swirl. We see leaders fighting for ground on which they can control everything, which does not exist. They delay making decisions hoping to reach an unachievable emotional state first.
This latter difficulty can’t be underestimated. Think of the investments brands make in understanding consumers and the emotions that influence their decision-making, and imagine if leaders extended more of this empathy to themselves! It’s OK, even essential, to take the emotional space to acknowledge how much outcomes matter to you and why. From there, we can work to set aside stressful do-or-die expectations by reframing our thinking.
Two things determine how plans work out: luck (what the world throws at us) and the quality of our decisions (how we respond to what the world throws). The role of a leader is not to predict the future perfectly. It is to be informed enough to prototype ideas, see what happens, and adjust-capitalizing on what their luck turns out to be. It’s to navigate everything that’s unpredictable for the betterment of their organizations and the people and ecosystems around them.
Six Steps for Making Confident Decisions
We believe that decision-making only requires leaders to become better (not perfect) predictors of the future and more opportunistic (pivot-ready) about outcomes. So we decided to develop a systematic approach to decision-making that’s flexible and human, and one that never assumes ideal conditions.
Step #1: Really Understand Your Objective
Fuzzy goals are easy to put off pursuing. Hone in on one clear objective, define it clearly, consider all its dimensions, and reality test it with peers to confirm its value. Why are you trying to make this decision, anyway? What do you want or need to change?
One common sticking point is confusing perfect outcomes with objectives. Instead, think of objectives as progress points along a much longer journey. If you’re starting a cosmetics line, for example, “formulating the best-selling foundation ever” is hard to plan against, and you’re likely setting yourself up to fail. Aiming to engage Gen Z and/or hitting initial sales targets, by contrast, gives you space to learn, pivot, and improve.
We call our preferred approach “satisficing,” as more often than not, an objective that “satisfies” core criteria will get you farther than a maximized, less realistic goal. And no, satisficing doesn’t mean settling. As Barry Schwartz wrote in his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, you can maintain high standards. The key is to recognize when an objective is productive vs. perfect and move forward.
Step #2: Think Critically About Your Options
For any challenge, there are often many reasonable solutions. You may want to expand your thinking and broaden your list, identifying previously-untried or more creative options. But never hesitate to narrow your list if it starts to feel overwhelming. Here’s why.
As humans, we’re emotionally wired to feel losses more deeply than gains. So if we have to say no to too many choices, it can make us feel deprived. After all, when we choose one option out of ten, we’ve “lost” the opportunity to pursue the other nine. We often see leaders getting stuck trying to avoid this negative feeling.
To limit your options, consider greater factors or guardrails, like your organization’s stated values. If your business is committed to sustainability, for example, announce you will only consider new product ideas that meet prescribed Earth-friendly standards.
Step #3: Envision Outcomes Robustly
Each of your chosen paths will lead to ramifications for your business. Think each of those paths through, predicting what you can while leaving room for surprises. What are the possible futures associated with each option?
Be flexible and follow your intuition to conduct this visioning. The process could be descriptive, laying out a business evolution that might follow a new brand launch. You can focus on KPIs, considering the ranges of volume you expect from different product ideas. It’s most important to balance provocative thinking (“ What if…”) with thoroughness and staying focused on the challenge at hand, not others that pop up.
During this step, it’s easy to get stuck worrying about operational readiness and/or risks. But assume the company can work its way through setbacks. As needed, conduct scenario planning or war game exercises to get ahead of downsides. It’s empowering to feel clear-eyed about risks and prepared to mitigate them, and the associated costs are often not as bad as anticipated.
Step #4: Honestly Assess Outcomes Against Your Objective
It’s time to revisit your goal and consider your options from greater heights. How do you feel about the futures you envisioned? How do benefits and costs measure up? How important are the upsides and downsides of each option in the context of your aim?
Avoid getting stuck here by identifying or creating the metrics that matter to you and are specific to your objective. You’ve now spent time imagining potential decisions in the real world, so you’ll have better ideas about how to evaluate their effectiveness.
Make the implicit explicit, and whenever you can, push beyond standard metrics. Falling back on jargon for the sake of expediency is easy, but we all know when we’re using buzzwords to mask lack of confidence or clarity. Worry less about making your new metrics “safe” and make them real, to you. Even in the world of design (known for its “we’ll know it when we see it” evaluations), there are ways to name and measure what really counts.
Step #5: Weigh the Likelihood of Outcomes
By this step, you’re done envisioning and ready to start imagining your decisions’ fates in real-world context. How likely are each of your imagined outcomes, along with their advantages and disadvantages? Think in probabilities, not certainties. But if something seems 75% likely to happen if factors A, B, and C remain as they are, that’s a good bet.
This moment-right before making the decision-presents one of the biggest and most powerful sticking points. You will not have perfectly complete and precise information. But there are three questions you can ask to build confidence, either in making your decision or pausing to seek further insights:
- What information would change my mind?
- Can I realistically get that information, and how?
- Can I afford what I might lose in time, money, or relationships to pursue the information rather than move forward with what I know now?
Late pauses instigated by these questions can be smart. To resolve them, we often recommend prototyping as a way to “affordably” source impactful information. These efforts can be iterative and lower fidelity, and therefore lower-stakes. They can reveal a previously-unforeseen outcome, illuminate the true likelihood of projected outcomes, or make outcomes more tangible-helping you to understand how you feel about them.
Step 6: Make Your Final Decision
You’re ready. You’ve laid out your options and their potential outcomes, and you’ve assessed likelihoods. You have visibility into the most important factors that will influence your outcomes and you see where risks lie. You know as much as anyone could, and you’ve thought everything through. Time to choose an action.
Get unstuck here by trusting your instincts. If you’re agonizing between two good options with great projected outcomes, just pick one! It is only hesitation, not a “wrong” decision, that will hurt you (and therefore your company) the most.
Research confirms that people regret not taking action more than they regret making mistakes. Errors can be corrected. Lessons can be learned. What we cannot do is go back in time to capitalize on opportunities at their most ripe.
Forget Perfection, Choose Momentum
The leader who follows these steps makes decisions quickly and more confidently. They expect to build on outcomes (instead of beat themselves up over failing to know the future), so they embed mitigations and agility into every new action. With the positive energy and the ongoing curiosity of an opportunity-seeker, they’re always moving on to solving their next challenge instead of letting valuable time slip by.
To become that leader, forget perfection and choose momentum. Decisions will remain the best tool you have for building toward objectives and making positive impacts. So start at step one, and feel good about what you’re doing. Push your organization forward. Drive growth one fearless choice at a time.
About IN THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS IN THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS is an article series from Bluedog Design’s most creatively strategic minds, launched to engage the many challenges and emerging opportunities facing the business leaders of today and tomorrow. About Bluedog Design Bluedog Design is a marketing and growth consultancy that works closely with its client-partners to shape better decisions that land in sustainable growth. It is a Certified B Corp, dedicated to doing business as a force for good, and was recognized by Crain’s Chicago Business as the city’s #1 Place to Work in 2021.