How to Make Decisions Quickly
“How to make decisions quickly” was a question audience members asked so often in the Q&A section of my trainings and keynotes that I developed a resource to help them do so. I’m now making it available to all of you, without the need to come to my speeches. After all, making good choices is key to professional success. Often we have to do so quickly, especially for day-to-day matters where it’s sufficient to make a “good enough” decision, where it’s not worth the time and efforts to make the best possible choice.
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The key to making good decisions – whether as an individual or as part of an organizational policy – involves avoiding many subtle dangerous judgment errors. Scholars in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics call these cognitive biases.
These mental blindspots lead to disastrous consequences in our professional and personal lives. Fortunately, recent decision science scholarship has shown how simple yet effective strategies will enable you to recognize where you and/or others on your team are vulnerable to cognitive biases. You can also use research-based techniques to protect yourself from these dangerous judgment errors and make the wisest and most profitable decisions, whether in business, in relationships, and in other life areas.
Perhaps the easiest and quickest technique takes only 5 minutes: asking 5 key questions about a given decision that will enable you to avoid the large majority of mental blindspots while maximizing the likelihood of making a “good enough” decision and implementing it well. I first created this method based on cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics science to help my consulting and coaching clients in large and mid-size businesses and nonprofits. I’m now sharing it so that others who can’t afford my services may still benefit from my expertise.
I call it the “5 Questions to Avoid Decision Disasters.” You should apply this tactic to any day-to-day decision that you don’t want to turn into a disasters.
We make many daily decisions every day that, if we’re not careful, can come back and bite us. How many times have you sent an email that you later regretted? How often did you observe – or participate in – unnecessary office drama, which harms employee engagement and productivity? When was the last time you or others in your workplace skipped working on important and not urgent tasks for the sake of less important but urgent ones?
These and many more everyday decisions can really hurt us if we make the wrong choices repeatedly and consistently. Since the essence of cognitive biases involves predictable and systematic errors, they lead to us making regular wrong choices in daily decisions.
I remember one time when I forgot to use this technique on an important email to a business collaborator. Now, it was late and I was sleepy, but this guy is pretty touchy and high-maintenance, and I knew it. The email came off as curt to him and upset him, as he told me in no uncertain terms. I then had to spend over half an hour composing an apology email to him, thinking about how to communicate my apology in the best possible way, reading and re-reading it, and of course applying this method. He ostensibly forgave me, but was less eager to do business afterward.
So not only did failing to use the technique cost me much more time, but it also cost me some serious money. People do business with those they like, and that decrease in liking was something I could clearly see in the much lower interest in doing deals with this person.
Don’t let it happen to you. Use the “5 Questions” technique on all everyday decisions that you don’t want to turn into a disaster, as happened to me.
However, you’ll want to use a more in-depth technique to make moderately important choices and a very thorough one for critical and/or complex decisions. The “5 Questions” technique will miss some of the more complex threats and unexpected opportunities accompanying such impactful decisions. To really protect yourself and your bottom line, take the time needed to weigh carefully the bigger decisions.
You should also learn and implement strategy will help you prevent disasters and optimize success in implementing such moderately important or critical decisions. A different technique will empower you to make strategic plans effectively. Finally, you’ll find helpful developing the very quick and highly effective habits of mind that will empower you to overcome cognitive biases.
First question: what important information did I not yet fully consider?
A common danger involves looking only for evidence that supports your preferred option, so make sure to look twice as hard for evidence that goes against your preferred option. Another aspect of “important information” involves generating sufficient options from which to choose, as opposed to being lazy and undisciplined by settling on the first viable option. Try to find at least 5 attractive options if at all possible to make a wise choice.
At the same time, you want to avoid gathering too much information and getting stuck in what’s known as “analysis paralysis.” Focus on gathering only truly important information. Ideally, you’d take time to consider what kind of information is truly important before starting to decide, so that you don’t have to make that determination in the heat of the moment during the decision-making process.
Second question: what relevant dangerous judgment errors did I not yet address?
There are many different kinds of cognitive biases, some more relevant than others to specific kinds of decisions. I made an assessment for the 30 most dangerous cognitive biases in the workplace, which you can use that as a guide.
Third question: what would a trusted and objective adviser suggest I do?
I hope you have mentors, coaches, consultants, and other experts to whom you can turn to help you make a good decision. It’s often decisions that we make by ourselves or in small groups with a powerful leader that cause successful businesses and high-flying careers to come crashing down. If you don’t have anyone to ask, try to imagine what a trusted and objective adviser might tell you. Doing so can have a surprisingly positive impact on your decision-making outcomes, leading you to recognize some biased mental patterns.
Fourth question: how have I addressed all the ways it could fail?
This question transitions from the stage of deciding which option to choose into implementing this choice to achieve your goals. Indeed, if you choose the best option available but drop the ball on implementation, you’re not going to reach your goals; this question helps ensure that you will achieve your envisioned outcome.
Now, while you’re mostly settled on your choice, be ready to rethink the option you picked if you discover truly momentous obstacles in enactment. Sometimes, as you consider how you’re going to implement what seems to be the best option, you will come to recognize that it was not the best choice after all. Then, it’s time to go back and revisit earlier stages with this new information you now have available. Consider one of the other 5 attractive options you generated.
Fifth and final question: what new information would cause me to revisit the decision?
I’ve seen business leaders weighed down by bitter attacks of self-doubt about a decision they made. Even more problematically, I’ve observed teams of executives that fight after a decision is made, with those who preferred a different option criticizing any sign that the actually-chosen option has problems, even ones anticipated from the beginning.
You want to avoid either of these scenarios and have your team focus your full attention and energy on implementation. To do so, take a bit of time to evaluate what new information – including quality and quantity – would cause you to revisit the decision. For instance, you can set a financial trigger such as “$30 million in sales” or a survey trigger such as “fifteen percent increase in customer satisfaction” or a prospect trigger such as “thirty new prospect meetings within the next six months” or a combination of any of these as a means of evaluating whether it’s time to revisit the decision. In short, answering this question in advance will really help you down the road.
How to Make Decisions Quickly in the Workplace Through “5 Questions”
What my clients find hardest about this technique, and what you might find most difficult as well, is remembering to use it for daily decisions. So your mission, if you choose to accept it, is figuring out effective reminders for yourself to use this technique.
What decision makers usually do is have the 5 questions in front of them at all times to help remind them how to make decisions quickly and accurately in their day-to-day work. An easy way to do so is by getting a decision aid in the form of a standing tent formed from a four-sided business card. It has the 5 questions and an inspirational quote about using the questions: “Beware of going with your gut! Our intuitions are adapted for the ancient savanna, not the modern business environment, and often lead us to disasters.”
I keep one on my desk at all times, as you can see from the photo below of the card folded in the shape of a tent. I also keep another one in my wallet at all times for when I’m away from my desk; the business card size of the decision aid makes doing so very convenient. You can also get the decision aid in the form of a regular business card for your wallet.
Another decision aid that might be helpful for you is getting these 5 questions in the form of a poster you can download and print out. Hang it in your office and the offices of others in your team and organization.
Leaders often get this decision aid for all of their employees and integrate asking these questions into their organizational systems. That way, you can be confident that all of your employees are minimizing the risk of business decision disasters in their individual and team everyday decision-making processes.
You can also hold your employees accountable for asking these questions. Thus, if a decision resulted in a disaster because one or more employees failed to ask one or more of these questions, they deserve appropriate penalties. However, if the disaster was truly unpredictable and the employees had no way of foreseeing or preventing it, then they deserve to be held blameless. Basically, you’re making sure that your employees are following the best decision-making process; that they’re doing everything under their control to avoid threats and seize opportunities.
Moreover, having a shared approach to decision-making enables everyone in your company to make your decision-making meetings much shorter and more efficient, reaching consensus quickly, per my consulting experience. The meeting organizer should remind all attendees to consider their answers to each of the questions before the meeting. The meeting agenda is naturally structured by the 5 questions. The discussion flows because everyone would be on the same page about what questions to ask – usually the most critical part of the decision-making process – even if the answers might differ.
As a result, it takes much less time to align meeting participants than for a typical decision-making session. Additionally, everyone has significantly more confidence in the quality of the decision due to the transparent, clear, and shared the process of evaluating information and making the decision.
While I don’t like to say this because of the intuitive human temptation to take shortcuts, I frequently have clients asking me if they can use this super-quick technique in an emergency on a major decision. I remind them that much better techniques exist for making both moderately important and critical decisions, and on implementing the choices you made. However, in a true emergency, taking 5 minutes to use the “5 Questions” technique will avert many potential threats. You should absolutely use it if you have no other choice on a rushed decision.
Asking and answering these 5 brief questions – by yourself or as part of a team – can save you a great deal of grief. You can download a poster for your office or get decision aids with the 5 questions for yourself and your employees here. No wise decision maker should skip taking the 5 minutes you would need to ask these questions and avoid business disasters.
How to make decisions quickly? Answer 5 key questions: 1) What info do I need? 2) What cognitive biases might harm me? 3) What would a trusted adviser say? 4) How might this fail? 5) Why might I revise this decision? —> Click to Tweet
Questions to Consider (please share your thoughts in the comments section)
- What are your questions about applying the 5 questions technique?
- Do you think using this strategy might benefit your organization and team, and if so, how?
- What do you think are the next steps you should take to bring this technique to your team and integrate it into your organization?
Image credit: Disaster Avoidance Experts
Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky empowers you to avoid business disasters as CEO of the boutique consulting, coaching, and training firm Disaster Avoidance Experts. He is a best-selling author of several well-known books, including Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters and The Truth Seeker’s Handbook: A Science-Based Guide. Tsipursky’s cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 400 articles and 350 interviews in Fast Company, CBS News, Time, Scientific American, Psychology Today, Inc. Magazine, and elsewhere. His expertise stems from his background of over 20 years of consulting, coaching, speaking, and training experience across North America, Europe, and Australia. It also comes from his strong research and teaching background in behavioral economics and cognitive neuroscience with over 15 years in academia, including 7 years as a professor at the Ohio State University, with dozens of peer-reviewed academic publications. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, follow him on Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn. Most importantly, help yourself avoid disasters and maximize success, and get a free copy of the Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace, by signing up for his free Wise Decision Maker Course.