Five Lessons for Decision-Making

Making decisions is hard (just ask my husband how many rugs I’ve looked at for our living room). It’s even harder when those decisions will have a real impact on students, teachers and school leaders. Yet working with school system leaders across the country, it’s become very clear to us that how organizations make decisions has a huge impact on the success of their initiatives and of their organization overall. A few things we’ve learned:

1. Choose one final decision-maker. We all like the idea of consensus. We want to believe if we discuss ideas thoroughly, eventually we will come to a clear answer everyone believes in. Unfortunately, that lofty goal can instead lead to delays, frustration and in the end, no clear decision. Before diving into a project, leaders need to very clearly identify who is the final decision-maker for each key decision. The decision-maker should have input from as many stakeholders as possible in order to make the best possible decision, but at the end of the day, he or she has to make a final call.

2. It doesn’t have to be the head honcho. The most effective organizations we’ve seen delegate not only work, but also decision-making. For example, we work with a great organization where the CEO trusts the Chief Talent Officer to make smart decisions. He also trusts her judgment to bring particularly difficult decisions to him to discuss and decide together. As a result, the Chief Talent Officer is invested, feels ownership over her work, and makes things happen quickly. She’s not bottlenecked by a lengthy decision-making process when it isn’t necessary and because she’s closer to the work, is able to make great decisions. As leaders, consider who is best positioned to make the right call and institute a path for escalation when necessary.

3. There isn’t a right answer. Sorry to break it to you, but unfortunately there is not always a right answer. There is only the best possible decision given the available information. We’ve seen leaders in decision paralysis because they are afraid to make the wrong decision; instead, they repeatedly to ask for more and more information to delay their decision. As a result, there is less time for planning, communications, change management and implementation (all of which are often equally if not more important than the decision being made). The overall success of the work is damaged when decisions are delayed unnecessarily.

4. Once a decision is made, all leaders must rally behind it. Behind closed doors, share concerns candidly and fight it out. But once a decision is made, all leaders must present a united front to support the decision. Nothing hurts credibility of a decision more than a leader questioning a decision publicly.

5. Decisions must be tested and can be changed. The good news is that most decisions are not forever. With changing environments, new information or different players, things will always need to evolve. We encourage our partners to thoroughly pilot their initiatives and to use that new information to improve their decisions in the best interest of teachers, leaders and students.

Making decisions is hard, but there are ways to make smarter, better decisions. What lessons have you learned about making decisions? Sound off in the comments.