Decision-Making for Impact: A Guide

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Begin with strategy

It’s important to place decisions in context. Decision theory can’t tell you what goals ought to be motivating you or who should be accountable for making decisions. So I like to tell people that decision-making doesn’t replace strategy. Instead, decision-making is the manifestation of strategy. Decision analysis methodologies are most powerful when you already have a pretty good idea of what you’re trying to do and how you want to try to do it. They work best when the challenge in front of you is to figure out how to take the general direction and principles you’ve already committed to and translate them into action in this specific situation.

Deciding what to decide

We make hundreds of decisions every day, from what to cook for dinner to whether to open up Twitter right now to how to respond to the slightly offensive comment your coworker just made. Most of these are hardly worth a moment’s thought, to say nothing of hiring a consultant to help you figure them out.

Breaking down your decision

Okay, now we’re getting to the good stuff. Once it’s clear which decisions are most deserving of your attention, it’s time to start analyzing the ones on top of the pile. There are a number of ways one could potentially break down a decision into its component parts. My own process incorporates the following:

  • 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

The preliminary analysis described in the previous section will give you a holistic overview of your decision dilemma, but it optimizes for breadth over depth. It’s like exploring the world by looking at a two-dimensional map — you can see the complete picture, but not all the details.

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

After the math, the aftermath

Congratulations, you’ve made your decision! Give yourself a pat on the back and a well-deserved breather. But don’t take too long, for while the dilemma itself may be resolved, the consequences of your choice are just beginning to be felt.

  • 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

So that’s how I help clients make decisions. If you have grappled with how to make smarter decisions for your organization or philanthropy and come up with similar or different techniques, I’d love to hear from you. There is always more to learn, and we are all in this together.

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Ian David Moss

Ian David Moss

Smarter decisions for a better world