Since 2002, my colleagues and I have not only learned how today’s leaders make decisions, we’ve learned which skills matter most and what it takes to build those skills. In this article, I lay out the skills required for optimal decision-making, describe the most effective approach for learning them, and suggest resources to aid the process.
This is a third in a series of articles in which I’ve been reporting the outcomes of 16 years of research with the LDMA (A real-world dilemma-based leadership decision-making assessment).
Q: How good are leaders’ VUCA skills? A: Few of today’s leaders are VUCA virtuosos.
Q: How well do leaders make decisions? A: Not as well as they need to. One of the most important things we can do for individual leaders is to help them build decision-making skill.
Decision making processes are often taught in a mechanical way — as a set of procedures to apply. Less attention is paid to the skills, habits, dispositions, level of understanding, or environments required to learn and apply these processes effectively. Learning a decision-making process does not, in itself, ensure that the process will be applied optimally. At best, learning a decision-making process is but one step in a real-world learning process that gradually increases a leader’s decision-making virtuosity. This process requires a suitable environment and a practice called reflective in-the-moment learning (a.k.a. micro-VCoLing)—a practice that involves turning every decision-making moment into a learning experiment.
In this article, I’ll be focusing on decision-making skills and how best to learn them. But before we begin, a warning…
What if my organization doesn’t support learning
Few people can develop decision-making skills optimally in an environment that fails to support learning.
Even in-the-moment learning is more difficult when…
- transparency is low,
- trust is low;
- all mistakes are punished,
- it’s difficult to speak truth to power, or
- decision-making is primarily autocratic.
If you represent an organization that wants to improve decision-making or implement a new decision-making process, you may need to begin by making sure the environment is one in which reflective in-the-moment learning can happen. This means…
- creating a decision-making environment that is high in transparency, trust, tolerance for mistakes, and support for collaboration. In other words, an environment in which teams and individual decision-makers are actively encouraged to engage in practices that allow them to build decision-making skill with every decision they make; and
- recognizing that people will not begin with a shared understanding of decision-making, the decision-making landscape, or any particular decision-making process, and will not have a shared understanding following training. Some will have more nuanced and complete understandings than others, and those whose understanding is less sophisticated will need more reflective practice over a longer period to build the same level of skill.
- Finally, it means appreciating that even the best decision-making process in the world will not work unless the people implementing it understand it deeply, are themselves able to employ it with virtuosity, and know how to support others as they build understanding and skill.
Linear and dynamic decision-making processes
I’m going to describe two broad types of decision-making processes, the skills they require, and suggested resources that provide support for building skill with in-the-moment learning.
As you will see as you read on, decision-making requires a large set of skills. Decision-making processes should be thought of as vehicles for building these skills, rather than solutions in themselves.We do not advocate that you learn, then slavishly adhere to a given process. The aim is to build a flexible set of skills that can be adaptively applied in a variety of contexts.
Linear decision-making processes
If you’ve ever taken a decision-making course, you probably learned to follow a set of steps, such as those shown in the graphic on the left. Most decision-making processes commonly in use in the 20th century looked something like this.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this kind of decision-making process. The steps make sense, the sequences are logical, and they have many applications. My colleagues and I call processes like these linear decision-making processes, because although they often have a final step that suggests iteration (review the decision), their application is usually not embedded in systems that support deliberately iterative decision-making. Linear decision-making processes work well in relatively low complexity contexts in which competing claims or stakeholder interests can be addressed with rules, existing guidelines, or best practices. Everyone who makes decisions should develop the skills required to apply at least one of these processes effectively. These skills include the ability to:
- consciously frame a decision,
- determine a decision-making goal,
- identify and understand relevant considerations,
- identify information gaps,
- seek out and evaluate required information or evidence,
- identify key stakeholders,
- seek, understand, and learn from the perspectives of stakeholders,
- make and recognize reasoned, evidence-based arguments,
- recognize and apply appropriate rules, guidelines, or best practices,
- weigh information and considerations in light of decision-making goal(s),
- identify and effectively implement appropriate decision-making tools and technologies,
- identify decision options,
- select a decision and manage its implementation, and
- set up procedures for evaluating decision outcomes.
Linear decision-making resources
Below are some helpful linear decision-making resources. We recommend that you treat them as guides rather than reading them or studying them in a conventional way. (Study skills are useless here.)
- take a look at the skill list above,
- identify a skill you’d like to start with,
- search available resources for practices you can apply to build that skill,
- identify safe contexts in which to practice, then
- practice until using the new skill seems effortless.
After that, select a new skill and go through the process again. Keep building skills in this way until you are linear decision-making virtuoso.
Our favorite linear decision-making resources (so far)
- We like Kevin Eikenberry’s, Solving problems and making decisions participant workbook: Creating remarkable leaders. This guide, which was originally designed for military leaders, includes many of the decision-making and problem-solving skills on our list.
- We also like Sam Kyle’s, The Decision Checklist: A Practical Guide to avoiding problems. Kyle’s focus on using decisions as learning opportunities is spot on, and he provides many helpful examples.
- Several decision-making skills require critical thinking, including evaluating information, making and recognizing reasoned, evidence-based arguments, recognizing and applying appropriate rules, guidelines, or best practices, and weighing considerations. In The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird suggest a number of practices designed to develop these skills.
For Lectical consultants & educators: Minimum Lectical Level 960 for simplest processes. Minimum level 1100 for mastery. Start with a linear process if the learner has not yet mastered a linear process — regardless of their Lectical Score.
Linear decision-making skills are not only appropriate for many everyday decision-making situations, they also provide basic skills upon which the more sophisticated skills required for dynamic decision-making are best constructed. Dynamic decision-making processes are specifically designed for managing wicked or ill-structured problems—the kind that arise in VUCA conditions.
Dynamic decision-making processes
As the complexity of the contexts in which we work and live has increased, so has the complexity of the decisions we face. Decision-making processes designed for high complexity contexts—such as design thinking, scrum, agile, and dynamic steering have introduced increased stakeholder involvement, broken decisions into smaller steps, and provided an array of tools for ensuring that every step in any decision-making process allows for review and adjustment. The example on the left portrays the design thinking process, a well-known process that started out as a development tool and has since been applied in a wide range of decision-making contexts.
Highly iterative decision-making processes and their offspring are already beginning to dominate in the 21st century, partly because they are specifically designed for complex, ill-structured (a.k.a. thorny or wicked) contexts in which competing claims or stakeholder interests cannot be addressed with rules, existing knowledge or guidelines, or best practices. Everyone who is regularly faced with ill-structured problems should be skilled in the use of at least one dynamic decision-making process and its associated tools.
Decision-making by any other name…
Many dynamic decision-making processes do not have names that make them sound like decision-making processes. They have names like Sociocracy, Design Thinking, or Agile & Scrum. Dynamic processes also have a lot in common, because although each was originally developed for a unique purpose, they all rely upon what we call virtuous cycles—iterating positive feedback loops. (You’ll recognize these from our learning model, VCoL+7.) They also share another important feature—their successful implementation requires well-developed VUCA skills.
If you’re making decisions in VUCA conditions you should learn how to work effectively with at least one dynamic decision-making process. This will require selecting a process that’s suited to your decision-making context, seeking a solid understanding of the process and the rationale behind it, and developing the skills required to participate in the process effectively, including skills for working with its tools and technologies.
Some of the skills (in addition to linear decision-making skills) required to master a dynamic decision-making process include well-developed skills for:
- the detection and amelioration of decision traps and cognitive biases,
- collaboration and collaborative learning,
- facilitation (specific facilitation skills vary by process),
- participatory decision-making,
- perspective coordination,
- contextual thinking, and
- working with appropriate tools and technologies.
Learning these skills requires the same approach described for linear decision-making processes.
I have not included computational approaches like six sigma and multiple attribute decision making in this article. Some of these approaches can be categorized as linear and others as dynamic.
Dynamic decision-making resources
Below are some of our favorite dynamic decision-making resources. Once again, I recommend that you treat these resources as guides rather than reading them or studying them in a conventional way. That said, there’s a steeper learning curve here than with the linear decision-making processes. Expect to invest quite a bit of time just wrapping your head around the concepts, then spending at least two years of reflective in-the-moment practice building the skills required for a reasonable level of virtuosity. The skill demands are big. But the rewards are way bigger, and you will begin to reap some of the rewards early in the learning process.
- It’s a good idea to prepare yourself with participatory decision-making skills before you take on any of the dynamic decision-making processes. Sam Kaynor’s, Facilitators guide to participatory decision-making is a fabulous resource for individuals who would like to build skills for collaborative decision-making. It’s full of excellent in-the-moment learning practices. As a starting point, you may also want to take a look at my Clarifying Questions article.
- There are a number of Coursera offerings on design thinking that include practices you can use to develop design thinking skills. I particularly like Design Thinking for Innovation, from the University of Virginia. You may also want to check out the group activity presented in the Design Thinking Crash Course Workbook, from One Workplace. It provides a real-world introduction to a range of basic design thinking skills and is most effective when facilitated by someone who is skilled in design thinking.
- These days, it’s not hard to find an organization that’s trying to scale Agile practices. The biggest obstacle to scaling appears to be the participatory decision-making component. So, if you are interested in building Agile skills, it seems prudent to work on participatory decision-making skills (Facilitator’s guide, #1 above) while learning how to use Agile processes and tools. One good introduction to Agile itself is a course, Agile meets design thinking, offered by the University of Virginia on Coursera. It’s the first in a series and includes a number of useful practices.
- Sociocracy is a nearly 100-year-old governance and decision-making system that creates an ideal context for building VUCA and other decision-making skills. I suggest that you begin your Sociocracy exploration with either, We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy, by John Buck & Sharon Villines or Many Voices One Song: Shared Power with Sociocracy, by Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez. The Sociocracy 3.0 site provides access to several workbooks and worksheets, but it is an enormous resource and will require some background knowledge to navigate.
For Lectical consultants & educators: Sociocracy requires a minimum Lectical Level 1000 for following the most basic procedures, increasing for more complex procedures. For leading a team, minimum score 1120 with high clarity and good VUCA skills. For leading teams of teams, minimum score 1140 with high clarity and good VUCA skills. Full understanding, 1150+.
To sum up
Good decision-making requires a set of skills—and can only truly be learned through real-world reflective practice. This kind of practice is possible only in safe and supportive environments. If our educational systems were more focused on building usable knowledge and skills through reflective real-world practice, we would begin adulthood with many of these skills. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case, and adult leaders often lack many of the skills required for optimal decision-making. Deliberate, reflective, in-the-moment practice in a safe and supportive environment is the best remedy.