Decision-Making for Impact: A Guide

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Begin with strategy

Deciding what to decide

Breaking down your decision

  • The factors at play. What is the broader organizational/strategic context in which this decision is taking place? You and your team members will usually have a strong intuitive sense of what’s relevant here, so it’s fine to rely on your gut for this one as a first pass. What are the biggest opportunities and concerns associated with this dilemma? What most excites and/or worries you?
  • What you could do. What are the options on the table? What options should be discussed but aren’t part of the conversation yet? What are the pros and cons associated with each?
  • Optimization strategies. Are we making this decision at the right time? Generally speaking, more strategic/consequential decisions should precede more tactical choices. Other decisions would be better considered after some set of events has unfolded or more information will be available. Finally, sometimes it makes sense to “bundle” decisions together so that the strategy can be naturally aligned.
  • Stakes. You will have already begun to assess the stakes of a decision at the inventory stage, but it’s helpful to keep them in mind as you determine how much total time and budget you’re willing to spend before committing to a direction. A thoughtful assessment of stakes will take into account who and what could be affected by the outcome(s) of the decision, by how much, and for how long. It would also consider the reversibility of the decision; once you’ve made it, how hard is it to go back on it?
  • Sources and degree of uncertainty. If you had to make this decision right now, what choice would you make? If the answer isn’t immediately obvious, it’s probably because there’s something (or several things) you don’t know that you wish you did. Honing in on those sources of uncertainty can help you prioritize what additional information would be most helpful to you in this situation. (Note that you can usually get a much more precise understanding of the value of additional information by modeling the decision quantitatively, as discussed below.)

Going mental with decision modeling

Sample decision model focusing on grantmaking for vaccine distribution (full article)

After the math, the aftermath

  • How should you talk about this decision (and the process that went into it)? Strategic Decisions Group’s Decision Quality framework notably includes “commitment to action” as one of six key pillars to a high-quality decision — meaning that they include commitment in the very definition of what constitutes a high-quality decision. Particularly when the decision is about a charged topic or conversation in your organization or community, having a robust, transparent process like this one can help to build consensus and buy-in moving forward.
  • Do you expect to make similar decisions like this in the future? If so, it’s likely you can reuse much of the analysis and basic framework you developed for this one in those scenarios to come. And if you created a quantitative model for the decision, you can turn that model into a standardized template that can accommodate any such situation in the future. In my own practice, I’ve built templates like this for things like whether to apply for a new consulting opportunity. In such situations, the work you put in initially to develop the model is amortized across many uses, making the investment of time effectively a no-brainer.
  • How does this decision affect other decisions you need to make? Decisions usually beget more decisions. You or your team might have been waiting for resolution on this situation because it would provide crucial information for other dilemmas in play. In other cases, a decision to, say, move forward with a project will create lots of new choices about how exactly to implement it. Be sure to document the more important of these so that you can devote the appropriate amount of attention to them, and if any seem especially high-stakes and/or uncertain, the techniques discussed in this article are here to help.

You, too, can decide like a pro

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Smarter decisions for a better world

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Ian David Moss

Ian David Moss

Smarter decisions for a better world

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