Decisions come our way every day, and we have to know in advance how good decisions are actually made. A constant theme in my posts is that awareness is the key to success. This applies most strongly when it comes to making decisions. Yet most people base their decisions almost solely on how they acted in the past. Their minds are habituated to a certain style of thinking, which means that they are ill-equipped for new, unexpected challenges.
Decisions lead to actions, which is why they are important to begin with. But just as important is the sequence of steps that leads up it. A series of steps must be fully mastered; otherwise, action becomes erratic and unreliable. All-important action plans follow the same template.
The Anatomy of Action
1. A challenge presents itself.
2. The situation is assessed.
3. Consultation is called in.
4. A decision is made.
5. Action is taken - there is something to do.
6. A result is achieved.
7. Responsibility for the result is accepted.
What makes action far more difficult in the real world than any model can indicate is that all seven steps are generally present at the same time—challenges don't arrive in a neat linear sequence like boxcars on a railroad track. Every day is filled with things to assess, advice from others, and so on. This constant overlapping and merging means that you can't rely on a simple formula for action. Anyone who reads the biographies of great generals or captains of industry quickly realizes that the "fog of war" could be called "the fog of leadership" just as well. It takes consciousness to negotiate your way through murky situations. In most situations of great importance, this comes down to group consciousness - a decision-maker with a good team behind him has a better chance of arriving at effective action in time to make a difference.
The main lessons drawn from the past tend to lead to the following tactics:
1. Assess the ratio of risk to reward.
2. Know the situation. Gather as much external evidence as possible.
3. Judge your rival's tactics as best you can.
4. Gather a team which shares the same values and goals.
5. Think outside the box to avoid conventional wisdom and the rigidity it brings.
6. Learn to trust your instincts.
7. Generate enthusiasm, loyalty, and esprit de corps among your followers.
This is good advice, much of it appealing to common sense. But it skews decision-making toward the cool-headed and rational. That's fine in the classroom; it bears little resemblance to decision-making in real life, which is fraught with stress, time pressure, deadlines, internal squabbles, conflicting aims, anxiety, and the pervasive confusion that afflicts "the fog of war" but hardly stops there.
Psychological studies have shown that emotions cannot be separated from reason, and experiments that attempt to isolate rational thinking have almost entirely failed. For example, buyers will pay too much for retail goods if they are in either a bad mood (which makes them impatient to get the whole thing over with) or a good mood (which makes them feel over-confident and generous). Bidders will go over their limit in the heat of auctions, and they will even pay more than an item is worth if there's a rival they want to beat.
The focus necessarily turns to an arena that is hard to document and analyze in leadership courses. In this arena are intangibles of mood, temperament, personal chemistry, group behavior, social dynamics, and so on. Skill in these areas is real and invaluable, and the lessons to be learned need to begin early on. They look different from the rational angle taken so often in case studies.
1. Know yourself. Tune in to how you feel. Don't try to be a rational robot, but don't make decisions overshadowed by anger, jealousy, and fear.
2. See the mood of the team as a reflection of your own as their leader.
3. Earn your group's loyalty by emphasizing hope, trust, stability and compassion, the four things that followers most want from a leader.
4. Learn the pitfalls of ego - self-importance, bravado, winning at all costs.
5. Never do what you know to be wrong - moral decisions aren't guaranteed to work, but the opposite is guaranteed to have high personal costs.
6. Fully recognize and reward the achievements of others. Honest praise and encouragement from the leader is a valued good, just like a salary bonus.
7. Promote diverse opinions, but make sure that they are positive contributions. Naysayers, messengers of gloom and doom, and worst-case scenario experts should be avoided. Realism isn't the same as bad news.
8. As leader, remember that you are the messenger of vision, and there's only one of you to do that job.
9. Don’t promote an atmosphere for gambling and gun-slinging. It will lead to dishonest representation of a situation's risks.
10. Catch yourself if you see that your followers fear you. Fear can create discipline, but the drawback is that others will be reluctant to tell you hard truths when you need to hear them.
In the end, nothing replaces individual awareness, so you will benefit yourself if you look closely at the anatomy of action, with an eye to maximizing each step. Learning how to make your decisions more conscious should take priority. It’s the one decision that makes all the others easier.