Some decisions are straightforward – the so called “no-brainers” – and do not need much time or process. However, the experience of those in a position of leadership find that there are some decisions that are both important and difficult and require a problem-solving approach and the exercise of wise discernment. In these situations, the hardest problem to be solved and decision to be made is often a dilemma requiring a binary choice (for example, this way or that, stay or go, attack or defend)
From my own experience, I have often used, and at many times failed (to my own cost) to use six steps to discernment in such tricky situations
STEP ONE. WORK OUT YOUR VALUES
Whether we are aware it or not, all decisions are conditioned to a greater or lesser extent by our values. Ethics, prudence, fairness, loyalty and faithfulness are often at play anytime we make a decision that might affect others. Most professionals are men and women are of great integrity and hold high values of behaviour. I have found it important to reflect on those values and have found that my best experiences of decision-making have come when I have borne my own values in mind and practiced values-based principles that align with my beliefs. Many of these principles have been consistently at play throughout history and across the world and different faiths. The moral law (you reap what you sow) is for example found in most cultures as is the golden rule (do not unto others what you would not have done unto you). The law of cause and effect was propounded by Newton (for every action there exists an equal and opposing reaction) but he was not the first to propound this. Many decision-makers have found these and many other similar principles from faith texts such as the Bible and have used them as filters to test proposed decisions to discover if they at least harmonise with chosen values.
STEP TWO. TAKE TIME TO CLARIFY THE NATURE OF THE DECISION
Decision-making starts with refining possible options down into clear choices. Discernment therefore begins with getting clarity on the realistic choices put before us. If possible, it is good to boil it down to a choice of two (this way or that way). Perhaps we feel the stirring towards a choice, but we are not 100% sure of what the concrete choice is yet. In this stage, it is good to allow the options to marinade for a while. The decision-making group should also ponder and agree:
- Have we refined the options and are clear about the choice being put before us?
- To what extent are we feeling the need to pause and exercise patience before arriving at what might be a hasty decision?
- What might be the possible unexpected or unintended consequences of following our preferred option?
- What further information do we need?
STEP THREE. ANALYSE DATA INSIGHTFULLY
To get to Step Three a certain amount of research will of course already have been done and data will already have been collected. During Step Three it is however vital to review the data and to gain further insights and gut feelings amongst the decision-making group as well as logical factors, such as economics (cost-benefit ROI analysis) or politics. Even when subjected to rigorous financial analysis, I have known many decisions influenced by over-optimistic projections, so it is important to visualise different scenarios (optimistic and pessimistic) to see if the finances stack up both now and in the event of an asymmetric shock, economic down-turn or a change in trading conditions. In attempting to gain some insights, feelings and emotions come into play as well as cold-hearted logic. Does the proposed decision make us feel positive or negative, uplifted or downhearted? Is the decision affected by foolhardy impulse on the one hand or over-cautious suspicion on the other? Are you, for instance, being swayed by the enthusiasm or pessimism of your partner or partners?
There are many suggestions that can be followed when considering or meditating on a possible decision:
- You can make a pro/con list
- You can ask yourself what advice you would give to another person or to another business in the same situation.
- You can work out how you might feel if – instead of you – a rival were to hire that person you were contemplating taking on or acquired that property you were considering
- You can act as if you have already made the decision and notice what happens as you think and reflect on his.
- You can ask yourself what choice you would be glad you made in five or ten years time.
STEP FOUR. CHECKING FOR ALIGNMENT WITH YOUR OVERALL PURPOSE.
Whether you are an individual, a family or a business, the next step is to check if the proposed decision is truly aligned with your high-level strategic purpose. Every professional firm is made up of its members and needs a raison d’être which transcends the desire to make money. Why the partners/members of any firm stick together and choose to be part of a particular firm has a lot to do with the mutual motivations and shared values of its members. The pursuit of profit is of course important , but a strong sense of purpose is necessary to give partners and staff good reasons for working late, going the extra mile and investing their careers, money and resources in the firm. The values mentioned at Step One are therefore a large element in a firm’s sense of purpose – the issues and factors which are important to members, which form the soul of the firm, and which help people to understand why the firm exists and what really matters to its stakeholders.
This higher purpose for a business therefore needs to be built on developing and defining the sense of purpose that is important for its stakeholders. Businesses fail through lack of passion on the part of it stakeholders and there is nothing sadder than a business whose individuals treat their job or career that fulfils no real purpose than the need to make a living. The great cultures and religions of the world are helpful here and I give just four examples that show a similarity of approach. First, the Japanese concept of ikigai for instance roughly means “the thing that you live for” or “the reason for which you wake up in the morning” and provides a way of discovering the delicate balance between pursuing your own passion, serving others and earning a living. Ikigai matches amazingly with the Hindu concept of 4 purusharthas – the four proper goals or aims of a human life. These are Dharma (righteousness, moral values), Artha (prosperity, economic values), Kama (pleasure, love, psychological values) and Moksha (liberation, spiritual values). Not entirely dissimilarly, For Buddhists, the path to enlightenment is attained by utilizing morality, meditation and wisdom.
For Christians such as myself the higher purpose starts with knowing, growing and serving God. This is not a new concept. Ignatian spirituality for example is built on the fundamental premise that our higher purpose is to serve God. The classic Christian writer William Laws was certainly not the first to suggest (in 1728) that we should develop a sincere intention to “please God in all the actions of our life, as the best and happiest thing in the world.” More recently, the American philosopher Dallas Willard (1925 -2013) wrote that human beings were created “to have a special relationship with God and to do our work in that relationship”. He went on to say that “God designed work as a fundamental structure of love in the kingdom of God – something that is meant to bring people together in living community for mutual benefit and support”.
There is common ground here between religions and culture – prospering by doing what you love, what you are good at and what the world needs all form good tests for career planning, business planning and creating the purposive glue in a business enterprise. The decisions made by businesses and individuals needs to align with these purposes which can be anchored into a culture of conscious choices and decisions
STEP FIVE. CHECK YOUR MOTIVES AND RESILIENCE
Most decisions carry not just financial implications but it is important for the leaders and individuals concerned in the decision to be emotionally healthy and free from personal preferences, or the pressures of societal or organisational expectations, the unreasonable fear of financial ruin, the desire for fame and honour, and anything else that stands in the way of a sensible choice. There are three mostly personal issues to look for
Selfish Motives. First we need to check for undue influences and selfish motives. It is very easy for any individual in a business (or even a marriage) to ask “what’s in it for me?” in relation to any decision. Partners who are about to retire from a professional service firm find it difficult to vote for a decision that will be costly in the short term and in respect of which the longer-term advantages will come too late to benefit them. Are we really motivated to reflect our overall strategic purpose or our higher (more spiritual) values, or are we concerned with what favours us most? Intuition has a place here. We must be careful not to be swayed by momentum or apparent urgency to vote with our heads when deep down we do not feel comfortable in our hearts.
Psychological or emotional dependencies. The second issue in checking motives is to get rid of the ‘false gods’ of power, control, money, popularity, success and achievement. It is helpful here to open our “inner observer” and to identify with honesty areas of emotional reliance and psychological dependencies. Using myself as an example of extreme career orientation, I have often felt my efforts can only be valued if I make myself indispensable and have in such circumstances resorted to more action, harder work and longer hours and have favoured decisions in which I personally can shine.
Take account of our weak points. The third (and similar) issue is to take account of both personal and organisational weaknesses. Will our course of action put ourselves or leading individuals under stress or threat because of our unconscious or typical defence mechanisms and behaviours when we are up against the wall? It is difficult for anybody to make decisions on behalf of a business if that decision is likely to affect us personally. Conversely, it is easy for us to move quickly into denial when presented with uncomfortable truths. For example, there have been many examples of professional firms seemingly being unable to face economic realities and quick to put their heads in the sand when faced with financial troubles. Equally, organisations that choose to acquire another business are often then faced with particularly unpleasant tasks, such as redundancies. More individual situations such as career decisions or major changes can trigger typical defence mechanisms in which individuals may go into denial or may even choose to forget responsibilities in order to avoid unpleasant tasks. In my own case, I find my innate caution sometimes to be a weak point as in any decision-making process I have often become unreasonably distracted by worst case scenarios. Balance and wisdom are definitely aligned.
STEP SIX. MAKING THE DECISON. It may be obvious but it is worth repeating the distinction between choice (“I prefer this option to that”) and decision which is when your preference is ratified into a decision.
In this step, it is important to seek final confirmation of your decision by double-checking (or circling back to) three issues:
- Your community or family. You might test the ground of your decision with trusted colleagues, friends or family to see if they feel your discernment is in alignment with your values and priorities
- The practical stuff, and unfolding confirmatory events. Notice if things keep opening up for you to act on your choice or if things are closing.
- Intuition and inner conviction; how does the decision feel? Whether or not you have tested the ground with those closest to you, imagine how it would be to explain the decision to those less close including clients, staff and external parties.
SUMMARY. Whether in business, career or personal life, the making of decisions is often seen both in hierarchical terms (who decides?) and as a test of boldness (lets be decisive). Considerations include the mandate or authority to make decisions, what degree of consensus or consultation is needed, what are the voting protocols and who has a veto. Even at an individual level, a person may theoretically have the power to decide his or her own future, but is restrained or influenced by practical matters, finances and the potential effects on others. A small professional firm (and indeed partners in a marriage) may resolve that all decisions must be unanimous but such a rule is in effect a default decision to retain the status quo unless otherwise agreed. Larger businesses may conclude that they need either a simple majority or a super-majority, but often consider the risk of a disaffected minority if a decision is made against their wishes or a grumbling majority if minority factions exercise veto rights.
In this article I have not been so much concerned with decision rights as I have with decision discernment, that is to say the process of thinking though and arriving at the optimal decision or to select the best path from a number of options.
It may seem as if these six steps are over-analytical or pedantic. In practice, the process can often be carried out quite quickly and seamlessly.