Many years ago, a friend of mine left her husband-to-be at the alter. She had the decency not to leave him there waiting, but made her decision only a few days before. At the time I was struck by the bravery that decision required, but also how very important it was that she knew that no matter how the expectations of family and friends had escalated, she could still decide. Whatever you are creating (a life together, a new product, a company) the more ideas you have, the more decisions you will have to make.
Today in the developed world, we are lucky in that we are nearly always free to choose. In creative roles, deciding which idea to back is vital, because you are unlikely to have the resources to run with all of them. I’ve just made the hard decision not to go forward with a project (yes, the project of business plan fame) with a great team of people. In getting to this point I find the following steps useful:
Step 1 – Stop
Hard decision-making often starts with one of those moments seen in movies where everything except the protagonist is frozen. That time when my friend asked, “do I really want to be in this marriage?” or I said, “is this project actually right for me?” and everything else stood still.
Step 2 – Think
The moment of clarity rarely lasts long enough for us to think things through, so we need to have a Greta Gabo moment and “want to be alone”. In this space we will ask where we want to get to and whether the option we are facing will help us to get there. Identifying a few specific grand ‘quests’ can be very helpful. When the proposed action does not fit into the quests or acts as a diversion we will know that it should be eliminated. With projects that are already started, it can be helpful to ask “knowing what I know now would I still make the same decision?” If the answer is no, it’s time to find your escape route.
Step 3 – Think better
Your mind will play tricks on you here. We tend to be programmed to hold onto any form of investment or commitment until it gives a return or we are certain it won’t, even if that investment is a few meetings and a couple of weeks of work. This illusion, like the Great and Powerful Oz will distract us from reality if we let it.
There are a few useful things to remember here, firstly that what we have already invested in economic terms is a sunk cost and should not be taken into consideration in making decisions for the future. Secondly, it is worth weighing up opportunity costs, that is, you can’t make every idea a reality, time dedicated to one is time lost on another, which is more worthwhile? Thirdly, related to the last point, we can use the 80/20 rule: roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Which 20% of your ideas are likely to bring 80% of the benefits?
Step 4 – Think for yourself
Many decisions we make are influence by what others might think of us or what we ought to do. It would be impossible to wipe all the influence of these away, (and in the case of companies undesirable where they to remove all ethical reasoning) but recognizing these attachments and the hold they have over us is a useful step. It will also help us to analyze our motivations behind the decision (extrinsic or intrinsic) and therefore perhaps the long-term effect of the decision.
Step 4 – Think scenarios
If we could see the future things would be different, but as they are, we can only visualize some different scenarios. This is as useful in personal decision-making as it is in financial planning, equally unreliable but a very helpful framework. Based on the information you have now, what is the best-case scenario for a year from now? Does the activity you are thinking of starting or ending help or hinder the attainment of this task? Does it still fit with your quest? What’s the worst case scenario? Does the proposed activity generate low income and distract from more high-profile or challenging ones? What would failure look like?
Step 4 – Face Cold Hard Truth
Somewhere in the middle, most movies have a moment of cold hard truth where the protagonist discovers things were not exactly how he expected. Decision-making can be helped by a similar moment. I remember when I decided to study drama and my engineer dad (none too happy at the prospect) made me write down the arguments for and against it. It was an arduous task to complete post Sunday lunch and led to a piece of A4 scrawled with all sorts of dubious arguments. This was probably the moment I realized that maybe a drama degree didn’t make the most sense. I still chose it anyway though. This moment of cold hard truth helps you to see what was at stake, then you can decide whether to risk it or not.
Step 5 – Add a pinch of intuition
Cleary not from any business strategy textbook, the dimension of intuition in decision-making shouldn’t be undervalued. Sometimes something just doesn’t feel right, there may be no numbers or strong reasoning to back this up, it’s just a feeling. We can disguise it as much as we like behind hard rationale but for most people intuition weighs in hard as we decide what to do.
Step 6 – Sleep on it
From the previous 5 steps we should have a pretty clear idea what we want to do. We have probably be worrying about the implications of the decision and what chain reactions it might set off. Before firing the initial shot, we need a moment of rest. This doesn’t mean physical rest (although it can) you just need to not think about the situation for a while. This could be through meditation, reading, playing sport, music, watching TV whatever helps you forget The Big Decision.
Step 7 – Decision time
Now we feel refreshed and invigorated we can look at the situation again. If we feel the same as before the break, we know what to do. If not, we need to go back a few steps and think some more. Once you have made the decision, it’s helpful to tell someone or to write it down. Do this in no uncertain terms: “I have decided to leave my job.” The persuasive effect of this is the same as that of the sunk costs in step 3 but this time you are using it to your advantage.
Step 8- Communicate
Once we are sure of the decision, we need to tell those most affected by it. Similar to communicating anything important, this will require control, focus and courage. The same breathing exercises that help with getting up on stage or starting an interview will help here. Similar focus in your explanation, limiting the number of ideas may also help with any ensuing arguments.
As any artist, writer or inventor will tell you, being creative is as much about deciding which projects to back with your time as it is about coming up with the ideas in the first place. Decision-making skills are vital. They can’t ensure we make the right decision every time but they can help remind us that we need to take the reigns and decide. Sometimes it’s tough, we don’t always reach the happy ending my friend has, but its part of the challenge of starting new things.