Decision Quality Aided by Attention to Process, Understanding of Realities and Review
Red Diamonds Features is an interview-rich publication that converses on topics related to our professional and personal lives, such as communication, decision making, behavior, conflict, trust, courage, resilience, courage, reputation and crisis management.
A narrow focus within decision-making can certainly be a strength yet if overly restricted, the possibility arises that advantage can become a detriment to success.
“I have found that one of the biggest barriers to quality decision-making is an over-emphasis on single outcomes rather than process,” Haffner says.
He spent 30-years specializing in decision analysis and performance and says process is undervalued in influencing outcomes.
“A sound and deliberate decision-making process increases the probability of a positive outcome,” Haffner says, adding “but does not guarantee it.”
Raising probability is wisdom in action and also adds a layer of protective risk management. Failure is a word and concept that can be taboo to talk about yet Haffner is not averse to talking about it when it comes to the topic of decision quality.
He insists there is complexity to failure, that is not merely black and white.
“Failure should not be an indication that the decision was bad because unknowable external factors may have had an impact,” he says. “So post-decision review should focus on whether a change in the process can increase the probability of success in the future.”
He stresses that numerous variables within decision equations, so to speak, make outcomes prone to uncertainty.
“In business there are many factors affecting the success of a decision that are outside the decision-makers’ control. Market forces, competition and the economy are some examples. The impact of randomness on outcomes also gets overlooked. So the impulse is to look at a negative result and assume the decision was bad. Psychologists call this hindsight bias,” Haffner says.
Yet that conclusion might not be accurate in his estimation. It might be more emotion or ignorance than factual and evidence.
“It feels like we should have known better when in reality unknowable factors caused the outcome,” he says. “The impediment applies to future decision quality because 1) it damages trust in the decision-maker, 2) we become unduly risk-averse, and 3) we discount the decision process even though it may have been sound.”
Leaning on experience and instinct is a psychological tendency that is natural and can prove a helpful shortcut yet it doesn’t come without risks.
“One of our biggest cognitive biases is overconfidence in our own abilities, skills, experience and instincts,” Haffner says.
It is rooted in our human development and life experiences.
“It comes from the primitive part of our brain that is in charge of keeping us alive. That lizard brain influences us to make decisions quickly. Some of its methods for doing this include: creating feelings of false certainty, believing our skills and insights are better than they really are and ignoring outside data in favor of our own intuition,” he says.
How we tend to analyze and make decisions is not unusual or always suboptimal, it is just not always what is required to make better or excellent conclusions and decisions.
“If we feel we have the answers within us, we can make a much quicker decision than if we have to evaluate data, get input from others, etc. — process,” Haffner says. “The subconscious desire to decide quickly kept our ancestors alive in their harsh and wild environments but usually doesn’t serve us well as 21st century humans.”
The allure of outcomes is hard to resist, Haffner says. It’s what most matters to us and lights up our brains, something process usually doesn’t offer.
“Outcomes, either positive or negative, are exciting. We have an emotional response to something working out great or horribly, especially horribly. That’s how our brains are wired,” he says.
However, when outcomes are not as expected and disappoint or fail miserably, the focus on them at the expense of process, reveals the risk of that type of mindset.
“If something goes wrong, stakeholders want to see the leadership do something — anything. It’s not a good look to say, ‘We made the best decision we could with the information available at the time,’ even when that is really the case,” Haffner says. “The danger is that people get blamed, demoted, and fired when they are not at fault.”
Organizations can’t become over-attached to the idea that process is inarguable and perfect. When that happens, it can become a falsehood depending on the problem, and compromised risk management.
“Transparency is important,” Haffner says. “First, the leadership should have a deliberate decision making process which includes involvement and input from people in the organization who have the most insight into, and are most impacted by, the decision.”
This inclusion of experience and insight is an asset.
“Then communicate how and why the decision was made and admit that although this was determined to be the best option, there are no guarantees it will succeed,” Haffner says.
This level of honesty, while seemingly foreign and dangerous in not holding the team accountable puts the focus on analysis and learning.
“Finally, always schedule and conduct a post-decision review after the outcomes are known. Evaluate the process and see if there were blind spots or omissions that can be addressed in the process itself to improve future decision quality,” Haffner says.
A protective risk management approach, he says, is to conduct small experiments.
“One tactic that is often successful is to test a decision on a small scale before implementing it fully. If the hoped-for results are not realized, the negative impact is smaller and it can be scrapped or adjusted before taking it full-scale,” Haffner says.
He doesn’t deny the reality that as individuals, teams and organizations we are judged by outcomes and results; reputations and careers are made and broken by them. Yet that can’t develop into an irrational fear.
“We can’t control how other people will react to our decisions or judge us. What we do have some control over is our relationships,” Haffner says.
A focus on humility, honesty, comprehensive communication, a shared goal and collaboration can be a sound approach, individually and collectively.
“We should nurture and maintain high-trust relationships with our partners and colleagues by being consistent and making sure our decisions are thoughtful and always align with our values. If we are transparent and trust-worthy, we won’t have to worry so much about failure. Show that you are dedicated to learning from failures and generally you’ll be fine,” he says.
He does have an observation, about which he expresses empathy and offers a suggestion for those people struggling with fear.
“If you find you are crippled by fear and it is keeping you from making a decision — analysis paralysis — it may be from a lack of confidence. A great way to gain confidence is to have the formal decision making process in place and follow it. If it is a process that has the organization’s approval you will feel more secure in making the decision,” Haffner advises.
Haffner’s post-decision review is a significant part of learning and eventually working towards process improvements and higher decision quality and consistency.
“At the beginning of the project or process, schedule a preliminary decision review date. It will be an estimate of when you expect to know the results of the decision. Has a new product succeeded? Has a policy change achieved the desired results? The date may need to be changed later but by scheduling it early you can ensure that you will not skip the review part,” he says.
Avoidance or overlooking the review is an error. Implementing it as a foundation in the decision-making process is a critical piece to greater success.
“Regardless of the outcome — good, bad, or meh — reviewing the decision is essential to continually improving decision performance.”
Michael Toebe authors and publishes the Red Diamonds Newsletter, a weekly publication, Red Diamonds Features and Red Diamonds Essays (all on Medium) and hosts the Red Diamonds Podcast. He is a specialist for reputation, professional relationships communication and wiser crisis management.