decision-making

Don’t Find Solutions, Create Them  

Being a leader can at times be a heavy burden. But making tough calls comes with the job. The hardest may be when you need to make decisions in “gray areas” – situations where you and your co-workers have gotten stuck – even though you’ve all worked hard to do the best analysis possible. The gray area situations are the ones where nobody knows what to do, but you know for a fact that you need to move forward.  

This is when judgment comes into play. Judgment is a mix of our experience, emotions, imagination, knowledge, thoughts. Using our judgment is necessary. But sometimes tools may come in handy, too.  

To guide you when tackling a hard decision, Joseph L. Badaracco – the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School – suggests you ask yourself and answer five practical questions. He has used these himself for years, to navigate “the grayest of gray areas”.  Instead of “merely” going with your gut, falling into line or listening to what your brain thinks you should do, you ought to stop and think, he says, once more and depart from these five questions.  

Why? Because, then at least, you’ve followed a process, and used a systematic way of approaching your dilemma:  

What are the net, net consequences of all my options?
What are my core obligations?
What will work in the world as it is?
Who are we?
What can I live with? 

What are the net, net consequences of all my options?

You probably already have a few assumptions on what you could or should do. Put these aside for a while.  

Instead, gather a few of your most trusted co-workers. Together, ponder all potential courses of action. Ask them, and yourself – simply:  what could we do? Consider each option individually. Who’ will be hurt or helped, short and long-term, depending on which path you take?   

Encourage yourselves to think broadly, deeply, concretely, creatively, factually about the full impact of your potential choices.     

You could for example use one or a few decision-making tools to facilitate the process (e.g. six thinking hats, decision trees, The Eisenhower Method). Above all, don’t jump into conclusions, and as Professor Badaracco says: instead, “grapple with reality”.  

What are my core obligations?

We all have duties towards various stakeholders. Also, we need to “safeguard, respect the lives, rights and dignities of our fellow men and women”.  When asking yourself what your core obligations are, Professor Badaracco urges you to step out of our comfort zone, recognize your blind spots and rely on your “moral imagination”.  

To do this, he encourages us to step into the shoes of our stakeholders – particularly those that will be affected and the most defenseless ones. If you were that person/these people; what would you feel/think? What would you feel you had the right to? What would you be afraid of?  

Think long –  and personally.   

What will work in the world as it is? 

Now, you’ve considered consequences, duties. Let’s think about practicalities.   

Professor Badaracco, recommends us to look at the world wearing the realistic glasses. What does the world really look like, in reality – not the way we wish it would be. If we see the world as it truly is, we’re more likely to create a realistic plan. And this is what we want. If we wish to lead an individual, a team or a department responsibly through a “grey area”, we’d better have a feasible plan.  

We live in a world marked by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA) – not a calm and predictable one. Lots of things happen that are out of our control.  As a leader, you rarely have unlimited freedom and resources – and sometimes need to make painful choices.  When asking yourself “What will work in the world as it is”, reflect on all the solutions that you have at hand. Which of these is the one most likely to work? Be pragmatic.  

Consider the people around you. Who wants what? How hard? Get ready to be flexible and agile, perhaps also prepared to play “hardball”.   Professor Badaracco summarizes: “Do the right thing.” Bring “persistence, dedication, creativity, prudent risk-taking, political savviness” to the task.

Who are we?

Professor Badaracco quotes John Mbiti; “I am because we are and, since we are, therefore I am.” This is the moment to think of relationships in relation to your values and norms. What matters – really? To you, to your team, to your company? How can you act, in a way that reflects and expresses your beliefs?  About the decision you are about to make: Which road best expresses what your organization stands for? Weigh values and norms.

What can I live with?

Your decision must reflect what you care about. This is about what you believe. Decide what matters most to you – and what matters less. Look for an answer within yourself.  For example, imagine that you explained your dilemma to someone whose opinions you truly value. Knowing and respecting you, what would s/he say?  When you’ve come to a decision, write it down together with your reasons for it. When you do that, it helps you clear your thoughts. And putting your decision in writing works as a form of personal commitment.  

Don’t find solutions. Create them.  

Source: Joseph L. Badaracco, the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School, Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2015  

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