Make a Decision! Bill’s Guide to Better Decisions


Sometimes We Make Decisions More Difficult Than They Need Be

I am always interested in how people make decisions. Not so much the decisions themselves, but how they prepare themselves mentally. What processes they use to come to a decision. It is often a tortuous and cumbersome thing to behold. This is unfortunate. Life is full of decision points. We would do well to give some thought about how we make decisions.

Over a lifetime of decisions large and small, I have come to use a “template” for decision making. It eliminates much of the angst and gnashing of teeth associated with decision making. More times than not, it also arrives at what I judged to be the right decision. I would like to share it with you.

The System

The system, if I may so bold as to call it such, has two components: FRAMING and ASSESSING.

FRAMING: Before making a decision, I warn myself or my team about the following three considerations:

1.“This is really a complex decision.”  We hear this a lot and say it a lot ourselves. In fact, it is often not true. What people often mean is that this is a decision that may involve a difficult or unpleasant choices. That is different from complex. Resist the temptation to hide behind false complexity.

2.“What is the number 1 priority?”  I learned long ago that when people ask that question, they are REALLY asking something else. They are asking “What one thing can I get you to identify as crucial so I can ignore everything else?” Decisions rarely result in one outcome. Remain aware of unintended consequences and opportunities as we carry out decisions.

3.“How important is this to everyone?”  This is a very good question to consider up front if this is a decision that will affect others. Some dear friends years ago taught me this simple concept. Ask on a scale of 1-5, how important is this matter to each of us involved in a decision. This takes the decision beyond what might give the best result. It takes into consideration the value of the decision to each stakeholder.

Suppose a given decision has an importance of 1 (low) to me, and 5 (high) to you. All things considered, I am inclined to defer to you, after some give and take. I hope you might to the same when the situation is reversed. Nothing written in stone, but valuing everyone’s priorities has merit.

ASSESSING: Once framing is done, we are ready to assess our options and make a choice. Any decision has two core components: outcomes and probabilities.

We are generally terrible at assessing probabilities. How likely a given outcome is to happen often depends on variables outside our control. Sometimes it involves variables beyond our perception. So, in most cases, I simply discount probabilities. I cannot, in most cases, make much of a prediction about probabilities.

But outcomes themselves can be measured with one key measurement. It is as follows: What is the worstthing that could happen with a given decision?  Not necessarily the most likely, but the worst outcome that could reasonably happen. Does any option lead to a worst-case scenario that seems unacceptable? If so, the decision is likely obvious.

Here is an example. I was once part of a group considering automatic external defibrillators (AEDs). Many people used the facilities, including elderly citizens and people with heart conditions. This was some years ago, before AEDs were quite so ubiquitous. Many people knew nothing about them, and they were expensive. Our decision options were BUY or DO NOT BUY. Our worst-case scenarios came down as follows:

BUY: We spend a lot of money for something we never use. It has an assurance value, but we never use them. Money spent for these is no longer available for other priorities.

DO NOT BUY: Someone among us has a sudden heart stoppage and dies. An AED would have offered a chance to live. Rescue professionals told us AEDs can be the difference between life and death. Who wants to explain to a family that we might could have saved the victim with an AED, and we thought about it, but we decided not to have them?

Which worst-case scenario seems unacceptable? We don’t know how likely either would be, but both are plausible. None of us wanted to be the one to try explaining why we did not have AEDs, even though we had directly considered them. We bought the AEDs. By the time I left that organization, we had not used any of the AEDs, happily. We decided the residual assurance value was a real plus. Should someone ever need an AED, we were ready to respond. Looking at the two worst-cases, the decision was a no brainer.

That’s all there is to it for most decisions. Frame the decision elements, consider worst case outcomes, make a decision. There are, of course, lots of nuances and exception. Still, my experience is that a model like this cuts out a lot of the clutter and enables one to make a good decision.

You’re welcome. But what about you? Any decision making tips you would like to share?

     Bill Clontz


If you find this blog worthy of your time and curiosity, I invite you to do two things:


(1) Join the conversation. Your voice counts here.

(2) Share the word about this post with friends and colleagues. Share a link in your emails and social media posts. Let’s grow our circle.


3 replies to Make a Decision! Bill’s Guide to Better Decisions

  1. Hi Bill, first time commenter here, but avid reader of your blog and admirer of your career from when we served together ,.. a long, long time ago.

    From that experience and countless briefings after, I recall on obigatory option that was always included in any solution set and that was “do nothing.” At first I used to think this was just some CYA maneuver but there may be times where you decide you don’t have enough information or there are other variables at work that make “do nothing” (at least in the short term) a vaible, and perhaps the best, option. Or, how often have you just waited awhile and found that the problem just went away or solved itself.

    Beyond that I think you have an excellent model. Again from “staffing” experience I don’t think you can coordinate an issue and it’s proposed solutions too much; even beyond your stakeholders group. Lots of folks that may be impacted down the line are likely to have valuable input. Do all you can to gather this input to aid you in your ultimate decision.

    Terry Yon

    • Excellent advice, Terry. Thanks for sharing, and welcome aboard.

  2. Thank you for much needed decision making tools because I’m in the group of making things harder than they need to be and procrastinating. You’ve taken the gray out of decision making. Appreciate these tools and will practice them. See, I’m already a convert! Lol!

Your Turn to Comment