I was reflecting this morning on how to think about difficult decisions.
One time in an interview I was asked how I would advise a leader to make a tough choice. It was for a job with a consulting firm, so I gave the straightforward answer: list the options, quantify them, estimate the uncertainty associated with each option, and go with the best choice. Pretty straightforward.
I then asked the partner I was interviewing how he would advise a leader to go about a difficult decision, and he said that my answer is exactly what he would do.
For good or ill, we own our choices, rather than consult on them. And–as anyone who’s been an adult for a while knows–if the right answer was easy to quantify, it wouldn’t be a tough to find. Here are a few other frameworks I’ve used help me with difficult choices:
Understand your alternatives
The first framework is this:
Am I really facing a difficult, yes or no decision? Or is there a way to expand the set of alternatives I’m considering? Can I experiment with a few of the aspects of both options? Can I mitigate the risk of the alternative I like most? Can I use time to learn more about these options to I can be more confident of the outcome?
Zoom out to broader context
The second framework involves stepping back from the moment at hand:
“What is the option?“…what does it mean for the decision maker?”“…for the decision-maker in the context that it’s made?”“…for the the decision-maker in their context over time?
This framework came from a friend who is an incredible leader. By stepping back from the decision, I can gain perspective. Great decisions are made with a long term view and a broad understanding of the context of the various options. They take into account how things will change–less than we expect at first, but eventually much more–and the reality of the situation in which they are made.
Consider Identity and Aspiration
The third framework is this:
“What that is central to my identity will be reflected in this choice?”
or, said another way,
“Is this what the person I’m trying to become would do?”
When I’m facing a difficult decision, it’s easy for me to focus on the moment that I’m in, instead of keeping my eyes on the distant goal. I know that in the long run my results will flow from my actions, and my actions will follow from my beliefs. When I’m in a moment of action, I have the opportunity to make sure that my beliefs are where I want them to be. I can ask myself reflective, qualitative questions:
-Am I putting first things first?-What story will I tell myself about this decision?-What stories will others tell about me based on this choice?-Will I be able to live with my priorities in this moment if the worst case occurs?
These are not easy to answer. But if you can find a story for yourself that stands up to your values, your identity, and what you believe is important–you’ll be prepared for the outcome, whatever it turns out to be.
Simplify the Issue
When I was in the military, we had a straightforward phrase for decision-making:
“Do what’s right, not what’s easy.”
This was normally used in the context of the discipline to do the little important things that make an incredible difference over the long haul. But it’s amazing how often this phrase helps me with big decisions. For me, what’s right is normally something important but not urgent, something that requires me to face whatever difficulty I’m tempted to back down from, something that will push me to have a meaningful conversation or take a step out in courage.
“Take a deep breath: it will be okay.”
We all face big decisions in life. And we decide some of them wrong. And that’s okay.
Most choices are not irreversible. Once I’ve given it some thought, slept or jogged on it, and I’m comfortable I can live with my decision, I choose and move on. If I’m wrong, I pick myself up, apologize, make a change, and keep going.
Easier said than done, of course. But life is the sum our choices: I’d rather be growing than right.