The Clear Impact Decision-Making Process
We all need to make decisions during times of increasing VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and rapid change. But do you have a structure to your decision-making that allows you to respond effectively to complex situations? Do you have a process you can reliably follow? This is the one we have developed over time. It was the foundation to our leadership program with some of the most powerful outcome data in the world.
Not every decision requires going sequentially through all these steps. As you read this for the first time, ask yourself whether there are steps you reliably include, and also whether there are steps you often miss. Consider using it as a framework to at least scan when faced with a particularly difficult situation.
For ease of writing we’re presenting this as if there’s a single decision-maker. If there is more than one person involved, please adapt the language accordingly.
Step One: Are you even ready to make a decision?
We love the term Window of Tolerance. The general idea is that we all have an optimal arousal level where we’re at our best. We can think clearly, take perspectives, reflect, be self-aware about our own habits and patterns that can get in the way, activate empathy and insight, integrate multiple factors, etc. When we’re in our Window of Tolerance we have the option to be responsive rather than reactive. We all can “leave” our Window of Tolerance through either over-arousal (anger, high anxiety, agitation, rage, fear, etc.) or under-arousal (depressed, numb, dissociated, sad, etc.). In either case we’re likely to be reactive and to not make our best decisions.
Be honest. If you’re not in your Window of Tolerance, do not try to make any important decisions. Above all do not hit the “send” button! When we’re reactive we almost always regret our decisions. “What was I thinking???” Do whatever helps you in those moments (deep breathing, going for a long walk, meditation, gratitude practice, prayer, etc.) and come back to the decision when you’re ready to be responsive rather than reactive.
Step Two: Frame the decision
Most people engage in problem-solving before they are clear on their current reality and desired outcomes. This is like driving your car on a road trip before you know where you are and where you’re going.
- What is the situation? Describe this in clear terms.
- What’s most important? This step really, really helps. What values or other factors do you want to guide you in your decision-making? These can be personal and professional values like authenticity, respect and appreciation. It can also be other factors like increased employee engagement, more resonant relationships, reducing similar problems in the future, using this opportunity to build new skills, etc.
- What’s my desired outcome? What am I wanting to have happen here? What would “good news” look like? Short-term and long-term? For me as well as for other stakeholders?
- Current reality: What are the facts? This apparently simple question is remarkably powerful. What is true about this situation? It’s “true” if almost everyone would agree. This is usually a very small subset of what I’m taking as “facts.”
- Current reality: What is the story I’m telling myself? What am I adding to the “facts”? What assumptions am I making? What’s the impact of those assumptions on me and/or others? Am I conducting character assassinations? Am I attributing characteristics to individuals that may be more about their context? Please see our article on Pond Thinking™ for assistance here. We tend to turn facts into stories (often based on our habits and patterns, previous history, and the context) and then, rather than holding those stories lightly, we reify them as “truth” and then become reactive. Watch how often this happens!
- What is the organizational context and culture? What ways of thinking and acting are being driven by the organizational culture (created largely by what senior leaders pay attention to)? How much clarity is there on roles and goals, vs. how much friction? How about access to resources? What larger cultural issues are at play, beyond my organization (e.g. the economy, political upheaval)? What’s the quality of interpersonal relationships? The level of trust and safety? And how might any or all of these be affecting the situation?
Step Three: Self-Awareness
What do I know about myself that might be coloring or impacting how I’m seeing this situation?
This could include more short-term factors (my level of health, stress, tension, etc.), how I know when I’m triggered or reactive, and more long-term factors (my habitual strengths and challenges).
- What do I know in general about my strengths, habits, patterns, challenges and blind-spots? We use the Enneagram as our model of choice for this, but of course there are many self-awareness tools. We form many habits and patterns before the age of two. How might any of these habits and patterns be impacting how I’m seeing the situation? Whatever self-awareness model I’m using, am I currently functioning toward the high end of my type, the low end, or somewhere in the middle? And what tells me that? In addition, many leaders have had the option of getting feedback about their strengths and challenges through 360s and performance dialogues.
- What do I know about the Polarities on which I’m generally balanced, and the ones that tend to be most out-of-balance, and how might this be impacting how I’m seeing the situation? If you have not explored Polarities, they are a powerful tool for generating individual and collective awareness and capacity-building. This article introduces Polarities and also relates them to the Enneagram. Polarities are two positive qualities that can feel like opposites, pulling in different directions. Higher-capacity leaders are better able to live in the tension of both/and rather than either/or. Typical Polarities that may be balanced, or not, include: Task & People, My Needs & Your Needs, Consistency & Flexibility, Individual & Collective, Confidence & Humility, and Idealism & Realism.
- We have written about the little-understood but vital distinction between leadership competencies and leadership capacity. This is about the worldview or lens through which I’m primarily looking at this situation. The following is a very short summary of these worldviews. We highly recommend reading the complete article.
- Opportunist: All that really matters is my own self-interest.
- Conformer: I just need to stay out of trouble, please those above me, and not say or do anything that could risk disapproval. While only a small percent of leaders naturally function at this level, many organizational cultures drive leaders to predominantly act this way.
- Expert: Heroic Leadership. I need to have all the answers. Asking for help, or showing any vulnerability, is a sign of weakness to me and others. There is just one right answer, and I have to find it. I focus much more on which individuals to blame, and much less on contextual influences (see Pond Thinking.™)
- Achiever: Everything is about the results. My worldview is still leader-centric. I want to build a strong team and drive results, without showing too much vulnerability (I’m still Heroic). I mostly see problems as having a “right answer” and over-privilege individual accountability over contextual impact.
- Catalyst: How can I inspire others and bring out the best in them? I recognize that complexity requires that we collaborate effectively, and that it’s vital to skillfully integrate diverse perspectives. I see how important it is to foster a context deeply imbued with safety and trust in order to get the best ideas from all. I’m OK asking for help, admitting that I don’t have all the answers. I’m also willing to challenge the goal, process, or thinking we’re using. I understand that for complex problems there is no one “right answer” and need to dynamically steer, an iterative process of looking for safe-fail or “workable” next steps and then learning from them.
Step Four: Perspective Coordination
Dealing effectively with complex problems requires the ability to effectively integrate diverse and differing perspectives.
- Who are the key stakeholders? Whose perspectives do I need to take and/or seek? Taking time to thoughtfully reflect on this question is very valuable. Who might have useful perspectives on the current situation? Who might shed light on what I might not be seeing? Who will be impacted by my actions? Who would want to be involved in crafting a response to this current situation? With whom can I collaborate? Some of these stakeholders come readily to mind. Often the ones who do not come as readily to mind are even more important to consider. Some stakeholders to consider: My boss. Peers (likely because of the Heroic Leadership ethic, many leaders don’t check with their peers to see how they’re dealing with similar situations). Team members. Other organizational resources (HR, legal, etc.). Customers/clients. Venders/suppliers. Trusted advisors (this can include an executive coach, significant others, friends and colleagues). Future employees (how will my actions impact my/our ability to attract high level talent?).
- Whose perspectives will I just take? Perspective-taking is putting ourselves in the shoes of others. We wonder why they might be acting in a particular way, or how actions might affect them. When we’re looking at their current actions, we hopefully watch for our tendency to assume negative intent, or attribute negative qualities, and instead ask what might their current contexts be driving. It’s helpful to ask what might be reasonable about what others are doing, while also knowing that some people act out of bad intent. Please see our analogy of Pond Thinking™ for more insight into this. Perspective-taking happens within my own head. Perspective-seeking is an interpersonal activity, where I ask others, with curiosity, about their perspectives. So the first question is whose perspectives will I just take, rather than seek? Sometimes this is because it’s impractical or impossible to actually seek those perspectives. Ongoing perspective-taking, perspective-seeking, and reflection are key drivers for capacity-building.
- Whose perspectives will I seek? Who will I approach to better understand their positions, their insights and ideas? A hallmark of later-stage or higher-capacity leadership is the understanding that all perspectives are limited, including my own. Also, as Ken Wilber has said, none of us are smart enough to be 100% right or dumb enough to be 100% wrong. Seeking appropriate perspectives will help me to tailor my approach more effectively to the current situation.
- Later-stage or higher-capacity leaders — those who deal more effectively leading in environments of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and rapid change — often seek perspectives at multiple stages of decision-making. When an initial Goal or overall Purpose is set, they seek perspectives on the strengths and challenges to accomplish that Goal or Purpose, along with possible strategies for moving forward. Later, they gather and integrate perspectives on how to best deal with specific issues that arise.
- How will I coordinate those perspectives? It can be confusing to have many diverse perspectives on a situation. It takes time to step back and reflect on these. Working with our teams, trusted advisors, and others is very useful here.
Step Five: Decision-Making
In complex situations the goal is to design a workable next step, a safe-fail experiment that at best will lead to significant positive results, and at worst will be unfortunate rather than catastrophic. See this article for more details. This is referred to as Dynamic Steering.
- Who to involve in crafting a next step forward? Is this a decision I should make individually or collectively, and why? Engaging key stakeholders is often important, both for crafting a more effective strategy, as well as for increasing ownership and buy-in.
- If appropriate, what decision-making process will we use? We’ve noticed that leaders are rarely explicit about their decision-making processes, and that this often leads to friction and/or confusion. Some examples:
- I will decide, while integrating the input of others. In our experience later-stage or higher-capacity leaders often say things like, “I’m going to own this decision. I have some initial ideas, but I’m not wedded to them. I’ll be happy if we come out of here with a different strategy than I came in with. But in the end it’s my decision.” Those leaders also know that they need to create contexts that are deeply imbued with safety and trust, where everyone knows they can provide their best input without fear of being ridiculed, made wrong, etc.
- Consensus (we all have to agree). This is a very time-consuming process, and should be used cautiously, if at all.
- Majority rules.
- One of many other structures. We particularly like the Sociocracy Consent Model.
- When others are involved later in the process, consider cycling back from through the initial steps. Do we all agree on what the issue is? Most important factors? Current reality? Fact vs. story? Desired outcome?
- Use a Dynamic Steering mindset to determine next steps. Dynamic Steering involves making workable decisions with steering points — rapid and iterative cycles of taking action, gathering data, reflecting, and planning next actions accordingly. Integrating all that has been explored so far — from Framing, Self-Awareness, and Perspective Coordination — what will the next steps be? Understand that when dealing with complex situations there is no one right answer, and the same “next steps” applied 10 different times could lead to 10 different results. We are not in control of all the factors that are influencing the situation. We can only make an informed choice and see what happens.
- Beware the Inner Critic. Most of us carry a severe Inner Critic. We judge ourselves harshly if things don’t go as planned. In addition, most organizational cultures promote this anxiety-raising tension. “Be innovative and creative, but don’t you dare make a mistake, or do anything that can have any of our stakeholders complain!” If you made a well-informed decision, and things don’t go as planned, that doesn’t mean you made a mistake. It means you learned something that you can apply to the next iterative step.
Step Six: Communication
Who needs to know what I/we just decided?
This step sounds simple, but it’s often missed. Who needs to know what? Who will be “blind-sided” if I don’t first communicate with them? Who will be impacted?
OK, that’s the Clear Impact Decision-Making Model!
Please share any questions or comments. As we said initially, sometimes leaders find it helpful to just look through the different parts of this model and linger at those that seem most pertinent. At other times leaders find it helpful to carefully work through each step.
Clear Impact Consulting Group is Dr. Joel M. Rothaizer, MCC and Dr. Sandra L. Hill. Hopefully, this article has stimulated some new thinking. We open-source our curriculum. Please subscribe to our Medium articles. You can find them all at Clear Impact Consulting Group — Medium. We welcome hearing from you. Our website is www.clear-impact.com. You can email us at partners[at]clear-impact.com.