Decisions usually involve two or more hard choices

As he often does, Jimmy Buffett said it best: “Indecision may or may not be my problem.”

Indecision may or may not be your problem too, or more specifically, your problem may be indecision in the management ranks. In the IT business, we’re faced with business, technical and people decisions on a daily basis. Moving up in the ranks, there are more decisions to make rather than fewer, and the fact is the decisions get more difficult to make. The more we learn, the more we know, the more experience we get, the less the world looks black and white and more like shades of grey.

If you can’t or won’t acknowledge the difficulty in, and uncertainty associated with, making major decisions, you’ll likely be frustrated with the people in your shop charged with making them.

Among the litany of complaints I hear about management, number one is “Why can’t they make a simple decision?”

In response, I usually suggest a couple of things.

Generally speaking, management isn’t management because they’re stupid. In most cases, they’ve been put where they are because they’ve proved what they can do, and maybe that includes a demonstrated ability to make effective decisions. Let’s not confuse effective decisions with quick decisions. And let’s not confuse effective decisions with decisions that necessarily line up with our own idea of what’s right.

Decisions often have to be made between two or more difficult choices, and there’s a downside to making or discarding almost every option. Unfortunately, as a strong advocate of one position over another, you may not see there are often things going on in the background that you can’t (or worse yet, won’t) see that need to be considered.

Management doesn’t respond well to absolutes.

If you want to help get decisions made, preferably in alignment with your recommendations, you owe it to yourself and the decision-makers in your organization to consider a number of things before you make your case.

What is the downside to your recommendations? Can you identify and acknowledge the weaknesses in your own approach? Very few solutions are without some downside risk, and management will (and so should you) be very suspicious of “perfect” solutions. They’ll be thinking: what are you overlooking? If you don’t fill in the blanks, they will.

Given the downside you’ve (hopefully) identified, can you reduce the risk of downside occurrences, and the negative impacts if they do occur? What is your mitigation strategy? You bring comfort to decision-makers when you demonstrate a plan to deal with risk.

Can you implement your recommendations in stages? Can a series of steps be put in place to minimize downside exposure? Being careful isn’t being timid, it’s being prudent.

Can you identify interim measures of success? Can you tell management what they should be seeing as your recommendations are being implemented (in stages, of course) to show them that you’re moving in the right direction toward the ultimate benefits you’re promising?

Are you giving management a way to back out gracefully if things don’t go well? If it turns out that your recommendations aren’t the right decision after all, how will you and management extricate the organization with the minimum amount of damage and at the lowest cost?

Are you being fully truthful about all the costs and all the support requirements needed to make your recommendations work? Someone was telling me last week about a multi-million dollar project that went to double the original budget.

“We always knew that double was closer to the mark” he said

“Then why didn’t you say that up front?” I asked naively.

“Because they never would have approved the project in the first place if we’d told them that”.

This kind of mind-frying logic is much too common – because we so strongly believe in the positions and projects we’re advocating, sometimes we’ll say whatever we think we have to get the decision we want to see.

Making big decisions is hard work, harder work than we often acknowledge, and we do ourselves a disservice by not acknowledging that fact. We’d be a lot more effective at presenting our recommendations, and helping our organizations make better decisions, if we could make sure that we’d put ourselves in the shoes of the decision-makers before we opened our mouths.

Hanley is an IS professional living in Calgary. He can be reached at [email protected].

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