For managers, situational decision-making is a tactical advantage. Understanding a decision’s impact, and how much time and effort you need to put into it, maintains your team's velocity.
To get there, you can use decision-making models. These help you learn what you need based on the decision at hand while keeping you, your team, and your company moving forward.
Here, we'll explore what decision models fit certain situations. We'll also teach you how to make decisions with full context, and how to keep an index of those decisions — so anyone on your team (even your future teammates) can learn from them.
Before you make a decision
You need a certain set of decision-making tools to lay the foundation for any choice. It’s not just a framework for the resolution. Your framework needs a framework.
Before you can make an effective decision, it’s imperative to address these three things — which can help lead to a better option in the end.
Remove cognitive bias
Bias might cloud your decisions without you even knowing it.
Do your best to surface and identify biases before the decision-making process even starts. They won’t be evident and it’s not a one-time thing. You need to find a process that consistently removes bias from your decisions as best as possible.
Call out bias at the very top of every decision — literally
Here are a few common biases to look out for:
Confirmation bias — making a decision because it aligns with something you already believe to be true. It’s difficult to challenge already-established beliefs.
Anchoring — similarly, we cling to pre-existing information or the first information we see during a decision-making process (like price). This can lead to tunnel vision.
Halo effect — positive or negative first impressions of someone or something can have an impact on your entire process.
Availability heuristic or recency bias — our brain expertly makes connections. Sometimes during an assessment, we operate only off what comes to mind first or what happened most recently.
Survivorship bias — often, we make decisions based on a sliver of information. The positive sticks out most, which doesn’t represent the whole, leading to rosy tunnel vision.
Have a place to document your decisions
The process of how you arrived at a decision is almost as important as the result.
But most of the time, context is lost — the work of making the decision only happened in your brain or across scattered tools. That's leaving your team at a disadvantage. So a database of past important decisions, well documented, can help:
Compound learnings for your team — every decision comes with nuance. If you’re able to provide the complete context around a decision, it helps your team learn together (whether from successes or missteps). When your social media lead wants to post a GIF on Twitter, you can show them why it didn’t work in the past, instead of simply dictating the order.
Make onboarding seamless — if you’re bringing on a teammate, you want them to get to a level of autonomy. That takes a while. But if they can see how and why you’re making decisions, they’ll be in a better place to make those choices themselves. And they won't duplicate work or failed initiatives of the past.
Speed up the decision-making process — was there a tough choice you chewed so long it hurt your jaw? If you have a library of past decisions, you’ll easily be able find one that's relevant to a current choice. It may help your process move a little quicker.
Whether it's in meeting notes or a list of documents, a database of decisions needs to be organized so your team can easily find them. If they're not easily found, they're not really useable.
What your decision-making database could look like
Assign a decision owner
Michael Manapat, Head of Engineering at Notion, lays out the process of decision-making for his team before any talk of the choice at hand.
He ensures the entire team knows who the decision-maker is, or if it’s a group decision. "If it's not clear from the beginning, it feels disempowering," he says. "But assigning a decision-owner keeps everyone moving at the right speed."
This decision-owner is also accountable for what happens after the decision — the execution.
To clearly assign a decision-maker, he tags a teammate so that person and everyone involved in the decision knows who’s responsible for its execution.
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Decision-making models to use when...
Decision-making models become useless if you don’t know when to deploy them. Each has a specific advantage based on the situation.
Do you need to be strategic, setting the course for your team or organization? Maybe you need to be more tactical, establishing how things get done. Or you could be operational, more focused on standards for execution across many projects.
Then take it a step further based on your environment. How important is the decision? How many people will be impacted? How much time do you have to make it? Having a firm grasp on all facets of choice helps you pull the right decision-making model from your quiver.
Templates give your decisions consistency
Here’s a few common situations we see managers in, and which decision-making framework might fit best. Hopefully this can inspire some future templates.
You have a lot of time and it's a really important decision
Use the rational decision-making model.
It applies a series of steps in order to arrive at the right decision. It’s meant to establish rigor in your process so you assess all possibilities and edge cases.
Using the rational model will take some time, since you’ll need to go through a set of criteria and give each some thought. It’s thorough in nature, so unsheathe this model when the decision is important and time isn’t a factor.
Here’s how to do it:
Identify the problem — make sure it is complex enough to merit this type of process. If so, provide some detail on why this is hard.
Establish the decision criteria — decide what's important for the result of this decision. What will success at solving the above problem look like?
Weigh decision criteria — now rank those criteria, from most to least important. This will help determine what road you go down.
Generate & evaluate the possible alternatives — every decision comes with options. Think about what those are here, determining the results and consequences.
Choose the best alternative — after laying everything down on the table, now you'll have to decide what the best course of action is (and your backup plan).
Implement the decision — the most important part of this decision-making process is implementation. Act with gusto now that you've weighed all the options.
Assessing your decision — often forgotten, it's important to see if your decision in fact solved your problem. If not, it's back to step one, or looking at other alternatives you generated.
If you're short on time and information
There are several different decision-making models you might use here, depending on the situation.
The goal of the bounded reality decision model is "satisficing" — make a decision that's satisfactory. Sometimes the best decision is the swift one. Usually helpful if the decision is easily reversible.
Unlike rational decision-making, you won't go through all the important criteria and potential outcomes. Bounded reality recognizes that not all decisions are made this way. You're relying on the information that's available without bogging yourself down.
Gathering information ahead of time to make a decision even faster
Two other models leverage your experience to arrive at a conclusion in a situation with time constraints and limited info.
The intuitive decision-making model is often used by experts making familiar choices in low-risk situations. It allows you to trust your gut instinct. Similarly, the recognition-primed decision-making model uses expertise to run through an imagined situation in your head (make a decision, and play it out mentally).
While both of these rely on experience, writing down the possible outcomes might help illuminate parts of that choice you might’ve not considered. Don’t self-edit here. Allow yourself to write out your thoughts unbounded. You don’t even have to review them — the act of writing helps you think.
You can even store these thoughts where other decision-making documents are held. That way, you’ll see your mindset at the time and can use them when similar situations arise.
There's no clear solution and you need some creative thinking
Use the creative decision-making model.
As a manager, recognizing when to be creative is really important. It can be a competitive advantage for your team. Using this model, you'll help unblock a group that's stuck or stagnant. There's a process to creativity that can help you devise something completely new.
Here's how to do it:
Identifying the problem — like most other decision-making models, you'll first need to establish what you're trying to solve.
Immersing yourself in the problem — start working on possible solutions to your problem in a document. Collect resources. Study. Formulate a hypothesis. Write down your thinking. Doing all this research and thinking will help you in the next few steps.
Incubating on the problem — now put the problem aside. During this process, the brain will unconsciously keep working on it. Do some dishes or go on a walk.
Illumination — get that "ah-ha" moment from consciously and unconsciously working on the problem. It'll likely come in the shower, where all ideas are born. And be sure to write it down in your document the moment your mental lightbulb clicks on.
Verification & application — consciously think about the best solution you've arrived at, and put it to the test. You can include this in your document, writing down the possible outcome. If it stands up, time to apply it to solve your problem.
Create a mood board to inspire your team
Bringing it all together
Managers are making countless decisions — all with different shapes, sizes, requirements and consequences.
You and your team's success depends on not only the decision outcomes, but the process you used for arriving at those decisions. As your team grows, you want to expand your team’s decision-making skills.
Documentation is the way to create this muscle memory for your team. The more you write these choices down — the model of decision-making, the context, the potential outcomes — the stronger that collective muscle gets.