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How to Make Successful Decisions Instead of Being Stuck in Problem-Solving Jail

Know the difference between problem-solving and decision-making, and which you need

Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

This post was first published on my Medium blog—follow me there for the most up-to-date entries!

I’ve often found it strange that business books give little help on how to make successful decisions. Sure, there are plenty of platitudes about the importance of making good decisions, or the consequences of making bad decisions. But that didn’t help me much. Here, I’ll try to describe some lessons learned, and some practical tips on decision-making for anyone who feels stuck.

How many decisions do business owners make in a day? We don’t know. Many writers throw around numbers based on the “Cornell study” but don’t cite the primary source. Indeed, a study by Wansink, Sobal and colleagues was conducted at Cornell, but their study addressed decisions about eating; it wasn’t in a business context whatsoever.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no study describing how many decisions entrepreneurs make in a day. But knowing that number (which allegedly results in decision fatigue) won’t put any more money into our corporate coffers. Instead, we should consider the substance and process of decision-making. The central questions are:

  • What is a decision? Is it the same as solving a problem?
  • How do we make decisions — good or bad — and what mental “equipment” do we need?
  • How can we learn from our decisions?

How is making a decision different from solving a problem?

If you find yourself wading through a proven problem-solving process and coming up short, maybe it’s because you don’t need to solve a problem; you need to make a decision.

Harvey Kaye’s book, Decision Power: How to Make Successful Decisions With Confidence starts by explaining that making decisions is not the same as solving problems.

The word decision comes from the Latin root caedo (caedo > cido > decido > decisum) which literally means “to cut.” You know the word “incision,” right? Same root. So when we make a decision, we are cutting ourselves off from something, even if the “something” is inactivity. A decision is just as much of a cut as a surgeon’s incision: we cut off one potential future to pursue another.

The word problem comes from the Greek pro, meaning “forward,” and ballein, meaning “throw.” The original sense of “problem” was a subject put forward for discussion or debate; something “tossed forward” to the group.

As you can see from their word roots, problem solving exists in abstract form. For example, an algebra problem has a correct solution. You and I might work through the problem and come up with the very same solution, because it’s just “a” problem, it’s not “our” problem.

The first identifiable sign of a problem is an obstacle. Even the Greek origin of the word suggests that an obstacle has been “thrown”. Something isn’t working, or isn’t working the way we had expected it to. Problem-solving can almost always be described as a step-by-step “how-to” process.

Entrepreneurs must deal with high level problems, such as those listed below. Some of those can be put through any one of several established problem-solving processes. (I tend to favor this 6-step model.) But if the entrepreneur asks ten experts what to do in those situations, the experts will have remarkably strong agreement about the solution, because the road to solving that problem has already been paved.

Not all problems are at the enterprise level. Yet they need to be solved. These sorts of mundane problems can often be delegated to someone else, and hopefully are not taking up half the company owner’s day.

Infographic by author

Decision-making, on the other hand, is a challenge for you and you alone. Yes, input from others is helpful to sift through the many possibilities, but the owner must make the final decision. Hence, being resourceful, creative, and tenacious is critical. Unlike in problem-solving, where the road has already been paved, the road to your decision might still be dirt or gravel. No one else can tell you exactly how to make successful decisions.

With decision-making, the first identifiable is often (not always) an opportunity.

Decision-making can usually be described in terms of who-what-which-when-where-why. Here are some examples of questions that can turn into decisions:

  • Who can I hire to be my new administrative assistant?
  • Where should I publish my blog?
  • What’s the next topic I could blog about?
  • Which software app should I use for my sales funnel?
  • When should I offer my new free webinar?
  • Why should I offer a small group weekly coaching session?

These examples — all questions I’ve raised at one time or another — are loaded with “I,” meaning that they are personal. The “should” or “could” words indicate that there is no glib, obvious answer.

Decisions usually focus on gaining some direction. Certainly, decisions can be trivial, like what to eat for lunch, or where to file some information. But more often than not, the serious business decisions are those that should support the corporate mission and vision.

Decisions almost always have a more far-reaching impact. That is, a decision could be career-critical or corporate-critical. From an early age, we’ve all seen this for ourselves.

  • We decided to go to this college or that college.
  • We decided to name our company this, rather than that.
  • We decided to invest x number of dollars into developing our new widget.

Decisions often — not always — have longer-lasting effects. I decided to become a nurse rather than a musician. I decided to work in a hospital rather than a clinic. That’s not to say that I (or you) can’t switch careers and get a different job — I’m now spending most of my days coaching and teaching and I haven’t set foot in a hospital in years. But the point is, a decision sets us on a particular path, and it is presumed to have a long-lasting impact.

Doing, not just thinking

Again, Kaye makes the distinction between a problem and a decision.

Problem-solving is more about thinking. The action comes at the very end. Performance is virtually ignored. Rational thought alone is enough to do problem-solving.

Decision-making is not about ideas, but rather, as Kaye says, it’s about “experiencing ourselves as capable in an ever-expanding sphere of influence.” As you learn how to make successful decisions, you’ll recognize that they depend on having the effort, risk, and skill to implement them.

Kaye says:

“Real decisions carry the full weight of our convictions; we make them because they matter to us. Real decisions make a difference in our lives. We are willing to endure the costs they entail exactly because they bring benefits that we need and desire.”

In short, whereas problem-solving is heavily slanted towards the “thinking,” decision-making is heavily slanted towards the “doing.”

You can instruct someone on the problem-solving process — I know, I’ve done it! Instruction about problem-solving teaches the learner to use logical, abstract methods. Do this, then this, then that.

Indeed, someone could instruct you on how to make successful decisions. But the instruction would be less about steps of the procedure and more about maintaining your balance. Instead of teaching you how to climb a staircase, the instruction would help you learn how to ride a bicycle.

In problem-solving we must access the mental equipment — the armor and artillery, perhaps, to defeat the behemoth.

In decision-making, we must access (as Kaye says) “self-knowledge, self-expression, courage, willingness to experiment, overcoming obstacles, and — when this cannot be done — accepting limitations.”

Self-Awareness as a key to good decision-making

Just blowing through our day with no reflection will not improve our decision-making. We need to start with the “awareness” stage described in Dr. David Daniels’ Universal Growth Process. When we become more self-aware, we can make better, faster decisions.

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman talks about two systems of thinking: (1) the fast-thinking, intuitive mind that may jump to conclusions, (2) the slow-thinking, analytical mind that critiques and validates the conclusions we’ve leaped to. If we put too much emphasis on the first system, we may end up blindly accepting our snap decisions; if we rely too heavily on the second, we risk spending too much time digging into the more complex task of analyzing or strategizing.

We might ask ourselves how we make (or fail to make) decisions:

  • How quickly or slowly do I made decisions? How has that worked out for me in the past? Have I been too quick with leaping ahead, and later found myself in a snare? Or have I been too slow and ended up in some quicksand? (Either of those cases can result in a lack of forward movement for the business.)
  • If I’ve jumped ahead too fast, why did I feel compelled to do so? Did I merely succumb to the scarcity principle, as described in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People?
  • If I hesitated, what was I waiting for? Am I waiting to have all the facts before I move forward? That may never happen. Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos says that “Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.” Think about that last part: Slow is going to be expensive for sure. Read more about the 70% rule in this great piece by Nabil Alouani.
  • Am I hoping to avoid all the obstacles or disapprovals? That may not be possible. Those who score high on the “deliberative” strength (CliftonStrengths) will try to remove all of the risks, and the time it takes to do that might result in a missed opportunity. And the Ennea #3 may fear disapproval for the decision, since the #3 has a high need to get approval from others. Newsflash: If you’re a business owner, your team will sometimes disagree with you. In the absence of complete agreement or consensus, aim for alignment.
  • If I delayed or just didn’t make any decision, why did I do so? Almost always, not making a decision (or having an excessive delay of a decision) is related to fear. Stop and think about that. Take a short assessment from Dr. Mike Foster: Are you perhaps afraid you’re not good enough to carry through?
  • Do I need a simple framework for making the decision? In her book How To Decide, Annie Duke talks about H.O.T. decisions. Duke’s three pivotal questions can get things rolling:

H: Will it make me happy?

O: Is there only one option?

T: Is this a two-way door?

  • Once I do make the decision, do I have the executive skills to carry it out? Pat Dawson’s book Smart but Scattered points out that thinking, however great it is, doesn’t get the job done. Action — i.e., executing our thought — is compulsory.

Developing this sort of self-awareness is key to good decision-making.

How can we learn from our decisions?

If you’re truly interested in learning how to make successful decisions you’ve got to figure out how to learn from your past ones.

As a business owner, I’ve found the KISS principle especially helpful in learning from my decisions. I use this tool when I journal nearly every day. But at least once a week, I seriously hunker down over KISS for myself and those in my small group coaching session.

You’ve probably heard “Keep it simple, stupid” (or Keep it simple and short, and several other variations). But that’s not the KISS for decision-making and course correction.

I’m talking about the KISS principle that was originally published by psychologist Dr. Philip B. Daniels. Here are the words, and how I interpret and use them.

Infographic by author

Keep: What will I keep, exactly as is? I’ve got fairly solid evidence that it’s working well, so I’ll do it again.

Improve: What kinda-sorta worked, but needs to be tweaked or adjusted? Here, I might consider changing the speed of the process or the sequence of actions. Or, I might consider changing the assignee, or the date we offered a program, or some other detail of the decision that would improve efficiency, financial return, or job satisfaction.

Stop: What just plain didn’t work? It just wasn’t a good decision. By that I might mean it bombed so badly this first time that I just can’t bring myself to try it again. Or maybe the decision didn’t completely bomb, but after multiple attempts and improvements, it just never moved the dial for the company. Okay, I gave it a fair chance, but no, I’m not making that mistake again.

Start: What have I never tried? Maybe I just never thought of it before. Or maybe I was lacking the money or the technology or the time — or any other resource — that I now have. And hey! I just want to give it a try.

Doing a KISS takes some reflection and introspection. But trust me, it’s worth it. Otherwise, you just keep doing what you’ve been doing, and that’s not how to make successful decisions in the future.

Infographic by author

Make successful decisions with purpose

Both problem-solving and decision-making are vital for all kinds of people, and business owners doubly so. The tricky thing about decisions is that, unlike problems, they can’t be reduced to the abstract. You’ll never be quite as sure you’ve come to the “right” answer.

If you find yourself running in circles and going down one rabbit hole after another, you might be bringing a problem-solving approach to a situation that actually requires you to make a decision. And you can make good decisions or bad decisions, fast decisions or slow decisions, but often the most disastrous decision you can make is no decision at all.

So make the decision. Yes, you can and should use your reflective skills to evaluate it later in order to inform how you make future decisions. But you know what you have to do before you can do any of that: you have to decide.

This post was first published on my Medium blog—follow me there for the most up-to-date entries!

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