Editor’s Note: Given the importance of decisions in determining and guiding the trajectory of organizational strategies, tactics, and tasks, the following considerations may be beneficial in helping to clarify elements of decision making to help optimize decision outcomes. These considerations are especially relevant to the discipline of discovery because they can positively or negatively impact investigation and litigation outcomes by their influence on the people involved in discovery positioning, programs, and projects.
“Well, you can knock me down
Step in my face
Slander my name all over the place
Well do anything that you want to do
But uh-uh, honey lay off of them shoes
And don’t you step on my blue suede shoes.”
Elvis Presley. Blue Suede Shoes. Sun Records. 1956
The Importance of Decision Frameworks
Frameworks for decision making can be incredibly helpful in ensuring individuals, teams, and organizations are in a position to make the most beneficial decisions to achieve their objectives.
There are role-based frameworks where organizational role tends to serve as the basis for decision making. There are expertise-based frameworks where domain and task expertise tends to serve as the basis for decision making. There are experience-based frameworks where experience tends to serve as the basis for decision making. Also, there are hybrid decision-making frameworks that blend the areas of role, expertise, and experience to varying degrees to serve as the basis for decision making. All of these approaches are important and may be applied depending on the type, significance, and time available for decisions needed to be made. And it appears that the most intellectually honest and emotionally secure individuals, teams, and organizations are comfortable with each of these approaches.
However, to truly understand and optimize decisions, it is beneficial to look beyond roles, expertise, and experience and look at the underlying elements that influence decisions.
What is a decision?
A decision is to make a final choice or judgment. (1)
What are the elements of a decision?
According to Peter Drucker in his 1967 article The Effective Decision, the elements (2) of a decision generally include:
- Classifying the problem. Is it generic? Is it exceptional and unique? Or is it the first manifestation of a new genus for which a rule has yet to be developed?
- Defining the problem. What are we dealing with?
- Specifying the answer to the problem. What are the “boundary conditions”?
- Deciding what is “right,” rather than what is acceptable, in order to meet the boundary conditions. What will fully satisfy the specifications before attention is given to the compromises, adaptations, and concessions needed to make the decision acceptable?
- Building into the decision the action to carry it out. What does the action commitment have to be? Who has to know about it?
- Testing the validity and effectiveness of the decision against the actual course of events. How is the decision being carried out? Are the assumptions on which it is based appropriate or obsolete?
Of these elements of a decision, deciding what is right is a challenge that many times does not get the attention it deserves because people are inclined to rely on sound-byte rationale without investigating the basis for that rationale.
What is the basis for deciding what is right?
To investigate what is right, it appears reasonable to organize assertions and arguments around four different cornerstones for concluding what is right. Those cornerstones are opinions, preferences, facts, and absolutes. These cornerstones are defined below for thoughtful consideration:
- Opinion: Belief stronger than an impression and less strong than positive knowledge. (3)
- Preference: Something that is liked or wanted more than another thing. (4)
- Fact: Something that has actual existence. (5)
- Absolute: Having no restriction, exception, or qualification. (6)
From these cornerstones driving conclusions, one can further classify decisions into feeling-based subjective decisions or fact-based objective decisions.
- Subjective: Based on feelings or opinions rather than facts. (7)
- Objective: Based on facts rather than feelings or opinions. (8)
These cornerstones and classifications are important because if they are correctly used as part of the decision-making process, they can more than adequately inform decisions and help give decisions more substance by identifying as part of the decision investigation process whether assertions and arguments are grounded on soft impressions or hard facts. Most organizations, teams, and individuals would wholeheartedly agree that they would prefer to make decisions based on facts and absolutes instead of opinions or preferences. But those same organizations, teams, and individuals rarely ask clarifying questions to fully understand the reasoning for recommendations. In fact, they tend to fall back on role, expertise, and experience generalities as the primary factor for their decision. Meaning if the person making the recommendation is in a decision making position and says a particular choice should be made, then that choice is automatically the right choice. It may be the right choice, but without asking the question of what is the basis for the choice (e.g., opinion, preference, fact, or absolute) the investigation process is not truly complete. This is not to say that decision makers should be totally subservient to facts and absolutes, but it is to say that if a choice is to be made, it needs to be fully informed and if made on a preference or opinion, it should be understood as that.
However, as people tend not to like being questioned in detail about their reasons for recommendations, especially those in leadership positions who have earned the right to make decisions and judgments, it does take an intellectual honesty to define the cornerstones as part of the questioning process. And these types of questions must be considered as ‘questioning to understand’ vs. ‘questioning of the person’ or they will most assuredly at some point cause friction in the investigation process.
What has to be aligned to optimize the execution of decisions?
While an understanding of decisions from definitions and elements to cornerstones and classifications is important, ultimately, for any decision to be optimally implemented, it is important to give those who have decision making accountability and responsibility the authority and control to make decisions. Said in a different way, if you give a person the task of making a decision, you should also empower the person to make the decision.
- Accountability: The state of accountable. (9)
- Responsibility: A duty or task you are required or expected to do. (10)
- Authority: Power to act especially over others derived from status, position, or office. (11)
- Control: To exercise restraining or directing influence. (12)
Yes, there are times where decision-making authority needs to be escalated based on the broad implications of a decision, but this should be the exception, not the rule. And if organization’s find this type of escalation happening on small, subjective judgments, it should be a red flag as to the need to properly align (and enforce) accountability, responsibility, authority, and control for those charged with leading decision efforts.
Why are all of these elements important to consider?
By understanding and intentionally reflecting on the considerations shared in this post, organizations, teams, and individuals may more easily be able to defuse the differences, explain the reasoning, and explain the reactions around decisions. Most organizations focus on diffusing differences and explaining reasons without considering the reactions around decisions. However, understanding the potential for these reactions can prevent inadvertent escalations and lines in the sand being drawn on specific decisions.
All in the workplace for any length of time have probably been involved in a situation where someone’s response to a decision or action was responded to in a manner that seemed completely disproportionate to the decision or action causing the reaction. And in these situations, the undisciplined, muscle memory (13) response is to classify such a reaction as an overreaction. However, if analyzed through the lens of a decision-making process, with proper decision making cornerstone and classification criteria and alignment of accountability, responsibility, authority, and control, what looks like an overreaction may actually be a principled response to the perceived violation of the way one viewed the decision process rather than a reaction on the actual decision itself. And decisions on principles can potentially have far-reaching complications.
A non-business example of this can be seen in the Carl Perkins song Blue Suede Shoes (14,15), made famous by Elvis Presley. In the song, it seems that knocking someone down, stepping on their face, slandering their name all over the place, burning down their house and stealing their car is a lesser offense than stepping on their blue suede shoes. To the casual observer, it looks like the singer is overreacting. When in reality, the offense may not be about the shoes at all, but about the perceived disrespect from the stepping on the blue suede shoes.
From Blue-Suasion to Persuasion
Carefully considering these decision and alignment elements for optimal decisions may help you avoid stepping on the business equivalent of someone’s blue suede shoes and move your decision-making frameworks from blue-suasion to persuasion (16).
(1) Merriam-webster.com. (2018). Definition of DECIDE. [online] Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/decide [Accessed 12 Aug. 2018].
(2) Drucker, P. (1967). The Effective Decision. Harvard Business Review, [online] January 1967. Available at: https://hbr.org/1967/01/the-effective-decision [Accessed 12 Aug. 2018].
(3)Merriam-webster.com. (2018). Definition of OPINION. [online] Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/opinion [Accessed 12 Aug. 2018].
(4) Merriam-webster.com. (2018). Definition of PREFERENCE. [online] Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/preference [Accessed 12 Aug. 2018].
(5) Merriam-webster.com. (2018). Definition of FACT. [online] Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fact [Accessed 12 Aug. 2018].
(6) Merriam-webster.com. (2018). Definition of ABSOLUTE. [online] Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/absolute [Accessed 12 Aug. 2018].
(7) Merriam-webster.com. (2018). Definition of SUBJECTIVE. [online] Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/subjective [Accessed 12 Aug. 2018].
(8) Merriam-webster.com. (2018). Definition of OBJECTIVE. [online] Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/objective [Accessed 12 Aug. 2018].
(9) Merriam-webster.com. (2018). Definition of ACCOUNTABILITY. [online] Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/accountability [Accessed 12 Aug. 2018].
(10) Merriam-webster.com. (2018). Definition of RESPONSIBILITY. [online] Available at: 12 Aug. 2018].
(11) Merriam-webster.com. (2018). Definition of AUTHORITY. [online] Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/authority [Accessed 12 Aug. 2018].
(12) Merriam-webster.com. (2018). Definition of CONTROL. [online] Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/control [Accessed 12 Aug. 2018].
(13) Dachis, A. (2011). How Muscle Memory Works and How It Affects Your Success. Mashable. [online] Available at: https://lifehacker.com/5799234/how-muscle-memory-works-and-how-it-affects-your-success [Accessed 12 Aug. 2018].
(14) En.wikipedia.org. (2018). Blue Suede Shoes. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Suede_Shoes [Accessed 12 Aug. 2018].
(15) Songfacts.com. (2018). Lyrics for “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins. [online] Available at: http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?lyrics=1141 [Accessed 12 Aug. 2018].
(16) Merriam-webster.com. (2018). Definition of PERSUADE. [online] Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/persuade [Accessed 12 Aug. 2018].