The Art and Skill of Decision-Making Processes

Why successful decisions come from thoughtful process, and how to design good process.

The Art and Skill of Decision-Making Processes
Photo by USGS / Unsplash

So much of the focus, research, and articles on decision-making orbit around improving how people make decisions. Decision-making is one of the most important responsibilities anyone has, and investing in the art and skill of decision-making is time well spent. But we often spend too much time focused on improving how we make decisions and not enough time focused on how we design decision-making processes.

In reflecting on my leadership of Uncharted over the years, I've observed that the decisions that ended up in the biggest mistakes were ones that didn't necessarily have poor analysis, but had poor process.

Designing the decision-making process is one of the highest-leverage actions a leader (or anyone) can take. The decision-making process I've followed includes:

People: Who is involved in the decision

  • Decision-makers
  • Advisors to the decision
  • People impacted by the decision
  • People who benefit from informed of the decision

Timeline: The timeline to make a decision (including intermediate steps and milestones before a final decision is reached)

Communication: How and where will the process and ultimate decision be communicated (and to whom)

Type of Decision: What kind of decision it will be

  • Autocratic: One person makes the decision without input from others (ex. what they will wear to work)
  • Consultative: One person makes the decision with input from other "consultants" or advisors who weigh in
  • Democratic: A democratic decision where people vote
  • Consensus: A decision where everyone must be aligned

Follow-up: What happens post decision, who is involved, what analysis or reflection is taken to improve?

The cost of under-investing in process

We make hundreds of decisions mindlessly every day, so the first challenge is to notice that we are about to make a decision and consider the right approach to process. Applying too much process, and everyone is stuck in bureaucracy and needless back-and-forth. Process can get in the way. But applying too little process, and you'll likely incurred the following costs:

  • Trust: A leader loses the opportunity to build trust with key people by not transparently sharing the process. Strong process builds strong trust. People will understand the decision better when they understand the process that was taken to arrive at it.
  • Clarity: A lack of clear process leads to the people who are involved often feeling unclear about their role in a decision-making process: "Am I actually a decision-maker here? Or am I just advising a decision-maker?" "I don't actually know who the decision-maker is."
  • Expectations: Frustration around decisions is often a function of a mismatch of expectations around who, when, or how decisions are made. So much of workplace frustration originates from a mismatch in expectations. Not everyone wants to be a decision-maker or wants to weigh in, but when their expectations differ from reality, trust can be eroded and bitterness can fester. Designing clear process leads to clear expectations.
  • Better decisions: Good process leads to better decisions. In the book Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath, they point out that decision made with rigorous process outperformed decisions made with rigorous analysis. We increase the chances of us making good decisions when we thoughtfully design the process.

What can you do?

  1. Notice when you're about to make a decision that might benefit from good process. This decision-consciousness is the hardest step.
  2. Revisit the elements listed above that comprise a decision-making process.
  3. Experiment with a small, low-stakes decision and design a decision-making process. Observe what went well, what felt tedious.
  4. Level-up to another decision with multiple people. Draft up a Decision-Making Process document that outlines the elements above and share with them for feedback.
  5. Follow the process for that decision, evaluate where it worked and where it didn't, and try again.