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Leader decisions part 3: How to build leadership decision-making skills

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.

What if my organization doesn’t support learning

Few people can develop decision-making skills optimally in an environment that fails to support learning.

  • trust is low;
  • all mistakes are punished,
  • it’s difficult to speak truth to power, or
  • decision-making is primarily autocratic.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
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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.

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.

  • 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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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.

Written by

Award-winning educator, scholar, & consultant, Dr. Theo Dawson, discusses a wide range of topics related to learning and development.

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