Great decision-making isn’t simple decision-making. Leaders must balance the multiple dimensions of all that leadership entails, and this includes decision-making for complicated scenarios in which clear-cut answers don't exist. Leaders can improve their skills in the types of ambiguous situations that call for such decisions by being intentional about their logic and thought process. The only way to consistently deliver that thoughtful mindset is to practice — and that’s where business simulations are particularly useful.
When I was in the first decade of my business career, I had the great opportunity to work for the CEO of a $2 billion IT services company. He remains one of the finest leaders I have ever known and my most influential mentor. I asked him once how he knew he had made a good decision. He started laughing and replied, “in hindsight!” He reflected that the best decisions he ever made were the ones over which he lost the most sleep, the complicated ones that called for a lot of thought and for which the “right decision” seemed mired in, as he put it, a gray fog. He added that in some situations he was convinced that he was making an easy decision, yet it often turned out poorly because he hadn’t spent time thinking through all the implications of his choices and determining how to mitigate inherent risks.
At Insight Experience, we work with leaders to help them build the muscle memory needed to make such decisions, the murkier ones in which no clear answers exist — and even the ones in which, in fact, the opportunities and the risks may seem fairly even. When you are faced with these decisions, what we call the 49/51 decisions, which factors do you consider? How do you consider you next steps? And what tips you in one direction or the other? The higher you get in your career, the more you will face such decisions, the ones that have greater impact — yet there will be less clarity about how your decisions will play out. And the amount of complexity changes at each level of your leadership journey.
Developing an unconscious competence in — and building a muscle memory for — this type of decision-making is important. Here are some actions that can help:
- Put decisions in the context in which you work. You never make generic decisions. Each decision is situationally dependent and full of nuance and complications.
- Think consciously about the risks. Do a pre-mortem. Ask yourself: What could possibly go wrong? It is easy to think about what could go swimmingly, but being disciplined about probing the risks can inform a decision in effective ways.
- Think consciously about the impact of your decision on the business system as a whole. How will it affect the broader organization?
- Plan for mitigation.
Newton's immutable third law of physics states that that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Taking time to build the muscle memory needed for consciously exploring opportunities, including the risks, and mitigating the inherent tradeoffs will help you navigate the gray. Experiential learning, like no other learning methodology, also can reveal your blind spots and offer development opportunities. (Real life is experiential learning, too, but it's expensive.) Business simulations are accelerated experiential learning, and they are what we do well.
Learn more here about business simulations as a learning methodology.
Jean Williams has more than 20 years of experience in executive and leadership development and management consulting. She is a professional facilitator and a certified executive coach, and she has years of experience designing, developing, and delivering educational programs for executives and senior managers. Jean’s delivery work with Insight Experience focuses on leadership development, strategy execution, and behavioral observation and coaching.