Decisions, decisions…

Robbie Steinhouse offers advice on training in decision-making

Decision-making is about the most important business skill there is, but it is not often taught. I’m not sure why this is the case. One reason is that academic models of decision-making tend to be excessively theoretical and not hugely useful for the hard-pressed manager or business leader. Another reason is that people consider that it’s a trait: they believe that some of us are ‘decisive’ and the rest of us aren’t, and that’s an end to it. There might be a touch of truth in this last belief, but only a touch. [pullquote]In essence, decision-making is a skill which can be learnt, and even the most ‘decisive’ person can hone their skills[/pullquote]. A third reason is, sadly, that many people don’t understand the importance of making proactive decisions, important ones that are freely-chosen as opposed to reactive decisions, which are forced on us. Instead, their decision-making experience is a series of responses to urgent situations, where the options have already become limited. This may be why the topic does not have the popularity it deserves. People may ‘deny’ their lack of decision-making talent and therefore ignore the subject all together.

It was to at least partially remedy this that I wrote a book on decision-making a couple of years back, and have recently produced a slimmed-down e-version. In this piece, I want to look more specifically at how to train people to be better decision-makers. Such a course needs to be broken down into sections, looking at different aspects of how we decide.

Three phases

First, some basic material on planning and timing decisions. The conventional wisdom that decisions have three sections – information gathering, deciding and implementation – makes a useful and easily accepted framework. Most managers are pretty good at information gathering and are often competent at implementation. The middle bit is harder, as it is a more emotional, personal business. The job of the trainer here is more as a facilitator, as someone helping the student to find their own way. People need to ‘know when they know’, and this is different for everybody. Some people ‘feel good’, others see colours or hear sounds. Investor George Soros has a negative signal that tells him a decision is a poor one: he gets back pain.

How do you lead people to this knowledge? One can begin by looking back at past decisions, good and bad. The key here is to make the learners ‘zoom in’ to the specific moment of decision and become aware of exactly what physical signals they were experiencing at the moment of deciding: just analysing the outer facts of the situation won’t be enough.

When these signals align and tell the learner that they are on the right tract, this is called ‘congruence’. Students need to understand what congruence actually means: the alignment of head, heart and ‘gut feel’ that comes with a good decision. I have a process that takes them through asking each of these parts of them if they are happy with a decision. Some managers find putting their hands on their abdomen and asking it if it is happy rather odd – and there will always be a few professional doubters. Most people find this interesting and, more important, surprisingly rewarding.

Following on from this, students need to know what to do with any negative responses. Some psychological theory comes in useful here. I’d recommend Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. It’s full of interesting material: most relevant here is probably the concept of loss aversion. We are, Kahneman argues, hard-wired to overrate the possibility of serious loss, and thus let what is actually a very unlikely negative outcome put us off courses of action which are massively more likely to bring benefit. Decision-makers have to understand this, and factor this into how they understand their own feelings when deciding. Thoughts of ‘Supposing x happens?’ need to be addressed with a rational analysis of probabilities. If negative feelings persist despite a check for irrational loss aversion, it is highly probably there is some aspect of the decision that has not been properly addressed. Good decision-makers learn by experience how to [pullquote]differentiate between genuine incongruence (something is truly wrong) and the natural ‘shakiness’ that comes when you are about to make a big, tough decision[/pullquote].

The context of beliefs

Every individual’s decision-making takes place within the context of that person’s beliefs. Students need to examine their beliefs and, if necessary change them. These will include beliefs they hold about themselves: ‘beliefs about identity.’ Robert Dilts talks about people believing themselves to be ‘hopeless, helpless or worthless’, beliefs about the world around them (good stuff won’t happen), about their inability to bring about meaningful change and about their not being worth good outcomes. When I started training, I naively assumed that most managers had got such negative stuff out of their system. The more I worked with people of all levels of seniority, the more I realised that many had learned to talk the positive talk but still harboured these deep personal doubts. I don’t want to go down the road of ‘unless you are totally together as an individual, you won’t be able to make good decisions’, but a measure of personal development work can be very useful to clear out the most unhelpful relics of past experience. Good decision-makers need to believe that good outcomes are possible, and that they are capable of and worthy of bringing these about. Rather than many hours of therapy, I teach people Dilts’ ‘Belief Change’ technique, which leads people slowly from fixed but unwanted beliefs to new awareness. There is no ‘brainwashing’ in this –  people choose the beliefs they want to change and what they want to change them to.

If this sounds too happy-clappy, another set of beliefs often needs to be questioned, the ones that say everything is fine. Many decisions are spoilt by being left too late and then being made in a state of panic. Learners need to understand that decision-making is much more than ‘firefighting’, it’s leadership.


The timing of decisions is itself a skill. Many decisions are made in conditions of artificial scarcity imposed on the decider by people with other agendas. The classic example is the salesman and the offer that ‘expires today’. People have to learn to retain power in such situations by securing the time they need to make a good decision. There are various ways of doing this, but the simplest is to ask for it. Other back-up methods exist if this doesn’t work. These can be role-played.

It is easy to overlook the timing aspect of decision-making, which seems tangential. But it is not tangential, in many decisions, timing is of the essence and the ability to control it as much as possible is a major determining factor in the decision’s success.

Testing a decision

The middle, ‘deciding’ section of the decision-making process can be neatly wrapped up with the study of a tool which I developed called the Decision Simulator, by analogy with the Flight Simulator. It takes the form of eight questions that lead the user through various aspects of decision-making in a simple, clear way. It is best used once a decent amount of research has been carried out and a ‘front runner’ course of action has been selected. This is then ‘put through’ the simulator – and may well emerge from it as a proper, well-made decision. ‘Yes, I’m going to do that!’

The simulator begins with the simple question: ‘What is the decision I face?’ This may seem unnecessary, but focuses the mind on the issue in hand. The next question asks ‘So what am I going to do?’ At this point, the front runner option is ‘fed’ into the system.

Time to step back a little. Question three is ‘What do I want to have happen?’ This is about what outcomes you want as a result of taking the decision. The answer is best stated positively – the visualisation of positive outcomes is much more powerful than thinking of negative ones and adding ‘I don’t want that’. Question four asks ‘How will I know when that has happened?’ The more specific students can be in answer to this question the better – what will they see, hear and feel? Question five asks ‘Why is this decision important to me?’ Even when deciding on behalf of a large organisation, it is important that the decision-maker addresses his or her own feelings about it.

Question six, ‘What could go wrong?’ may bring up what turn out to be irrational fears, such as those generated by loss aversion. But all need to be considered. Criticism needs to focus on the plan, not the individual making the decision. When a list of realistically possible negative outcomes has been drawn up, one can then ask (of each one in turn): ‘What am I going to do about that?’

Having satisfied him or herself about these potential pitfalls, the learner asks ‘What are the next three steps in pursuing the course of action?’ This focuses the mind on the choice in as concrete a way as possible (as well as being the starting point of planning the actual implementation). It sets up the final question, which returns to the ‘head, heart and gut’ material I mentioned earlier. The learner actually places a hand on the relevant part of the body and asks ‘Is this right?’

Practicing this tool – and practice is the only way to learn it – brings two major benefits. On the most obvious level, it is useful. Learners will be able to apply it at work the moment they leave the training room. At a deeper level, it trains the mind in a way of thinking decisions through that calls into play the widest aspects of the process. Regular use makes people better, more informed decision-makers. It provides confidence if students lack belief in their own ability.

Making it happen

I would like to conclude with some material on implementation, the third phase of decision-making. Implementation is largely about planning, so a familiarity with the basics of project management is needed here. Most managers should have that, if not, now is the time for them to broaden their skills.

However, implementation is also an art. Arts are notoriously harder to teach than crafts, but one can at least apprise people of the kind of soft skills they should be acquiring. Diplomacy is a key part in turning a decision into action. People ‘out there’ will need to be influenced to support the decision. Many people in organisations are very wary of top-down imposed decisions and the frequent disruption they bring. Good implementers will overcome this. A two-stage process can be practiced, where you first sound people out, then present the decision in a way that addresses their concerns.

If this approach seems too indirect, students need to understand that the best decisions involve flexibility. No decision is made with perfect information, and even if one were, events would soon change. Such events can be positive as well as negative. Decisions open up opportunity.

This last point is particularly important and it is good to leave students with it ringing in their ears. Decision-making is seen by some as a chore and by others as an irrelevance. Perhaps the most important outcome from training in decision-making is that the participants emerge with a new perception of decision-making. They will emerge with new skills. They will emerge with a belief system less prone to attacks from those old saboteurs, feelings of being ‘hopeless, helpless or worthless’. Best of all, they will view the process of making decisions in a new light. They will understand that good decision-making empowers the individuals and organisations that practice it. They will understand that decision-making creates opportunity rather than closes off options.

All the stranger, then, that the subject is not taught more. I hope this piece does its bit to change that.


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