Five steps for effective decision-making in uncertain times

Within the COVID-19 paradigm we are steering ourselves, families, communities and organisations through uncharted waters. While there is no roadmap to guide tough decisions, we can, however, consider the most effective means of making decisions in order to mitigate risk, solve problems effectively, and position ourselves best for the future.

Decision-making in uncertain times

Decision-making in high-pressure situations

As Jim Rohn put it: “you cannot progress without making decisions”.

In its simplest sense, decision-making is the act of choosing between two or more courses of action. Each day we are faced with choices. Some are more trivial than others, like choosing what to eat, what to wear or whether to continue reading this article. Other choices are more complex, depend on a multitude of variables and have life-changing consequences.

Currently the world over, people are having to make important decisions under conditions of high uncertainty, within time constraints and with unreliable information. In such a situation, it becomes easy to get overwhelmed by the notion of making the “wrong decision”. This can ultimately lead to feelings of hopelessness, decision-fatigue and inaction. No matter how crucial and stressful it can get, a decision has to be made in order to move forward.

In this article we are going to look at five steps in a systematic process of making more effective decisions and how you can support your strategy when uncertainty rears its ugly head.

Five steps for effective decision-making

For Peter F Drucker, decision-making is about selecting choices or compromises in order to meet objectives. Effective decision-making involves the process through which alternatives are selected and then managed through implementation to achieve objectives.

From this perspective, decision-making has its own systematic process, its own clearly defined elements and is only successful when the decision is finally put into effect. Making effective decisions is therefore a step-by-step method that can be learned and honed over time. Kescia D. Gray simplifies this process for us by outlining five steps in the systematic decision-making process:

1. Identify your goal: What is the problem that needs to be solved, and why does it need to be solved?

2. Gather information: Gather information from multiple sources in order to understand the problem and identify courses of action.

3. Weigh the consequences: Determine the potential impact of your action in the current, medium and long term.

4. Make your decision: Execute your chosen course of action. Trust your instincts and reasoning. Ask yourself how you feel about the decision now and how you may feel about it in the future.

5. Evaluate your decision: Take cognisance of your chosen course of action and the steps you have put in place to implement it. Keep evaluating the process in order to learn from it and to hone your decision-making skills.

So now that we are able to approach our decisions in a more systematic manner, how do we better navigate uncertainty?

Effective decision-making in times of uncertainty

From one perspective, an increasing sense of uncertainty reflects a changing environment that will impact the choices we make. Leaders know that making good, fast decisions is challenging at the best of times. When you have a crisis of uncertainty such as the COVID-19 pandemic, organisations face a potentially paralysing volume of big decisions. The challenge is to act decisively, with speed and with the best information in hand.

In relation to uncertainty, decision-making can be described as “the process of reducing uncertainty about solution options by gaining sufficient knowledge of the options to allow a reasonable selection from among them”.  

While not being able to eliminate uncertainty altogether, a systematic approach to making decisions can help reduce uncertainty. Moreover, recognising and accommodating changes provides the opportunity to increase decision-making effectiveness.

So how can we adapt our strategy in order to better navigate treacherous terrain?

Take a Breath: Pause and take a breath. Take a moment to step back, take stock, anticipate, and prioritise.

Involve More People: Avoid the urge to limit authority to those at the top. Involve more stakeholders and encourage different views and debate.

Make the Critical Small Choices: Some decisions that seem small or routine at first can have large long-term strategic implications.Identify the small choices with long-term impact and make them.

Make informed decisions. Knowledge makes the new seem more familiar, reducing separation anxiety.

Avoid unnecessary risk. When the environment is providing lots of uncertainty, defer risks that are in your control.

Take one risk at a time when feasible. Combining risks from multiple decisions can create confusion, increase stress, and make it difficult to learn from unsuccessful outcomes.

Avoid emotional risk taking. Take risks for the right reasons based on clear, calm, and rational thought.

Manage decisions adaptively. Increase monitoring and appraisal for decision-making in uncertainty. Readily adapt as new knowledge is uncovered.

Be bold, be decisive and act with purpose

Unprecedented crises demand unprecedented actions. According to Alexander, De Smet and Weiss from McKinsey & Co,  leaders are more likely to underreact when faced with an onslaught of big decisions. In times of uncertainty, decision makers need to take the bold and rapid actions that would feel too risky in normal times. A step-by-step approach to decision-making does not only promise to make decisions more effective, but can help reduce uncertainty and hone your decision-making skills in the long term. The only thing to do now is to be bold, be decisive and act with purpose.

Leave a Reply

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>