Decisions Decisions

Outside experts are often consulted to help make the right decision. However the right decision isn’t simply the one left over after all the wrong choices have been eliminated. Yet that’s the false certainty that some clients seek when they deliberate too long.

It’s an appealing fallacy. Who can be faulted for deliberating too long about a big, complicated decision?

Delay for deliberation is not the same as procrastination. It can be hard work overthinking a decision. Procrastination is simply a waste of time. Both result in delay, and both may be caused by the fear of being wrong, but exhaustive deliberation can be, well, exhausting.

Here’s the fallacy: In the time spent seeking certainty about the best course of action, there’s no certainty that the best option will still be available when the final decision is rendered. This is especially true when the decision involves a lot of moving parts.

Competitors won’t wait for the decision. Governments change. Economies falter. Talented people come and go. The best choice at the end may not be the best choice anymore.

Again, it’s an easy fallacy to understand. The consequences of a bad decision are usually measured in dollars, not time. More sophisticated organizations might measure the intended results of a decision against non-financial, strategic objectives as well, but dollars will always be a critical point of comparison between projected outcomes.

But time is draining away while days of study and contemplation turn into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. Options can evaporate, dwindling the number of choices until few or none remain.

Once the range of options has been narrowed, one will usually emerge as the only obvious choice. It may be no one’s favourite, it may be uninspiring, but in the absence of strong alternatives, support will coalesce around it.

This is the point at which slow decision making starts to perpetuate itself in an organization. By the end of a long process, the only real choice, the least bad of the remaining choices, looks like the strongest choice.

An organization can become fatigued by choosing. It feels like a relief to settle on something, anything, that won’t be questioned, even if it the result is suboptimal. At that point, no one wants to look back and compare the final decision against what might have been possible if a time-limited opportunity had been seized, rather than squandered,fs early in the process.

It’s a common mistake for clients to mistake a decision as the right one because it stands out from among some obviously wrong ones at the end. Likewise, the best decision may be off the table by the time committees and consultants finish ruminating about it. The best option may have expired as a result of changes in the organization’s operating environment. That’s precisely why time has to be factored into decision making, alongside money and other strategic considerations.

There is always a point in a deliberative process when further research, analysis, and consensus building detracts from the quality of the final decision. It sounds counterintuitive to say that, but that point always comes.

It reminds me of the carpenter’s rule that you should always measure twice and cut once. It’s important to take enough time to get it right. But the carpenter who measures and measures and measures and measures, always trying to achieve perfection with the saw, will soon be out of business.

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