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How to Make Difficult Decisions … a bit Easier to Take

Wolfgang Fengler's picture

There is a fine line between legitimate caution and needless un-decisiveness. At work it’s easy and tempting to get frustrated when you feel that colleagues (or worse your boss) simply can’t make up their mind. You feel your work is being delayed for no good reason and there can come a point when a clear-cut “no go” seems better than more waiting and uncertainty.

In his best-selling book, “7 habits of highly successful people”, Stephen Covey identifies the ability to make decisions on time as a key driver of success. Poor performing and unaccountable leaders enjoy living in ambiguity. They don’t disclose the parameters of their decisions either. By contrast, strong performers are those who recognize that there is no such thing as a perfect decision (otherwise there would be nothing to decide about). Michael Joseph, the former CEO of Kenya’s Telecom giant Safaricom, clearly belongs to the latter group. He is a decider. When asked about the secrets of Safaricom’s spectacular success at a meeting with World Bank staff in Nairobi he explained: “You need to make decisions. Even if you only get 7 out of 10 right, you are fine.”

Making a decision, more often than not, is really tough especially if it has far reaching consequences. As a World Bank staff, a perennial tough one for my family has always been ‘where to move next’. So many variables come into play: the jobs available here and there, the team you would work with, the types of opportunities for your spouse, quality of schooling for the children, the distance from home (and that’s just a short list).

To make difficult decisions easier to take I use a “decision matrix”, which is most useful when you have two options to choose from. The matrix doesn’t decide for me but it helps me to identify my own priorities and make explicit the relative importance that I place on each of them. Many big thinkers have developed philosophies and applications around decision making, which go way beyond my own simplified approach, including Robert S. Hartman, who pioneered the quantification of values.

There are two steps in making the decision matrix meaningful. The first step is to identify the relevant criteria and to weigh them to reflect their relative importance. The second step is to “grade” each option along the various criteria (with appropriate weighting). If grading and weighting is too much, just commenting on the categories can help.

Here is the matrix I did with my family in 2009, when we were considering moving to Kenya (which we picked) or to an alternative location (called Option B for this blog).  Our first decision was to give equal weights to personal and professional considerations. The personal criteria included: quality of schools for the children; health and security risks; distance to home; quality of life; job options for my wife. Under the professional criteria we had: quality of management in the new position; level of responsibility/autonomy in the job and career prospects. Salaries were comparable in both assignments and did not need to be considered. Within each block we also weighed each criterion equally. Here is how it played out for us and how we chose Kenya over Option B which was both closer to home and also a great assignment workwise (see table).



Information is never perfect but decisions still need to be made. To increase your chances of making the right one more often than not, using a structured approach can help. You may find that some criteria are either similar or cancel each other out (for example if one location has better education options but the other fewer risks) such that the decision hinges on just a few criteria (in which case getting more data and insights makes sense). Also, if you and your spouse have different points of view, the matrix will help make this explicit, although it may also make for an explosive discussion (you really value your professional growth more than our kids’ schools?!). And even if you regret your decision eventually at least you will have a chance to update your criteria next time around.

The beauty of this tool is that it can be used in many different contexts including in development. Governments and business leaders are continuously making decisions and almost all of them entail trade-offs. Take the example of public expenditures and assume that a country is reviewing its subsidies and also wants to introduce universal healthcare. If the country can’t afford both, which expenditures should it make a priority? The criteria to make this decision could include the economic impact of each measure, the social benefits, overall costs to the budget, likely resistance and support for each measure, the risks of corruption, or the ease of implementation. Poor decisions are blamed on "capacity", but as this tool demonstrates, they could be due to values and weights.

This matrix has worked for me and for some friends and colleagues. Try it out and maybe it makes your decisions a little easier next time you consider moving, buying property or you simply need to decide whether to write a blog or not.
 

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