Complex Decision Making

By Anton Rossouw.

We live in a world of uncertainty because the future is inherently un-knowable, but we can make sense of it and guess what the future may hold for us. That is complex decision making where there is no one obvious right answer to any question but multiple answers that can lead down multiple paths.

Business and project success is directly related to good decision-making practices and processes. When it comes to deciding about tomorrow, next month, and next year, executives and managers have to make a few big directive decisions and a lot of small decisions during business and project lifecycles, leading us to unfolding alternative future paths.

The one thing I have come to realise about decision making effectiveness, especially when it is about strategies for acting in an un-knowable future, is that apparently minor decisions taken lightly can cause huge unexpected surprises later on. The small decisions are as important as the few large decisions.

One throw-away decision made not well constructed and understood early in a project can generate a storm and close the doors of opportunity, or we may be lucky and new doors open!

Therefore, when it comes to the future and strategic decision making in uncertain contexts, it is important to practice considered decison making even for what seems to be minor decisions. The key is to embrace the complexity of our contexts through awareness, openness to alternatives, contextualisation and insightful sensemaking.

We tend to repeat history by making decisions according to what worked for us in the past. But no two contexts, two situations, two projects or two organisations can be exactly the same, so we should be vigilant to not re-use our old decision paths without clearly making sense of and understanding the differences in context.

If a decision has strategic implications that may send our futures off into multiple alternative paths (as opposed to deciding what to have for lunch), we need a process of embracing complexity to sense the most simple "right" path under the conditions. That is as good as it is going to get!

Experience in making decisions has also taught me to be cautious and aware and to question the "accepted and proven path" because missing a decision "tweak" early on may cause problems later ! Apparently innocent decisions could have the most dire consequences when you least expect it. When this happens we lament that we should have seen "it" coming or should have approached "it" from a different angle.

In order to better think though our decisions (ie. considered decision making), some steps below towards improving the robustness of single person (as opposed to team based) strategic decision-making processes:

  • Describe the situation and context to yourself and decide if it is complex, complicated or simple.

  • If it is simple, just make a decision as quickly as possible and move on!

  • If it is complicated ask an expert (if you are not that expert), but if it is complex then:

  • Decide why the outcome of this decision is important.

  • List principles that may guide your decision-making within that context.

  • Ask if you have to make the decision now or later (urgency).

  • Ask what the likely impact is (importance).

  • Explore what, how, when, who, with what, and how many while reflectig on the context.

  • Conduct an environment analysis of decision surrounds; (political, cultural, business, technology, skills, resourcese etc.).

  • List relevant information that may inform the decision.

  • Assess what is similar and different between familiar past and current decision situations.

  • List any next decisions that may need to be made as a result of this decision.

  • Brainstorm alternative event pathways, outcomes and opportunities.

  • Create on a couple of likely alternative answers, don’t decide yet.

  • Let it simmer for a while.

  • Ask yourself what you have missed.

  • Decide on an answer.

  • Make the decision knowing that it may be wrong and you may have to make a different decision tomorrow !

To sum up, understand if the context is complex, complicated or simple, and follow appropriate decision making paths.

To resolve uncertainty (in your head at least) procrastinate only when necessary, make lists, gather relevant information, analyse alternatives, explore, wait for the a-ha moment then be decisive, and be honest later if your decisions stuffed up ! Prepare to change your mind and defend new positions.

The bottom line is that robust complex decision sense making and consideration processes will in all probabilty lead to positive outcomes but if they don't because of the unherent complexity and uncertainty of the future, then we at least have constructed a better foundation to approach and understand future decisions.

The only alternative to considered decision making is to do it from the gut quickly and intuitively and go work with the flow ! That is equally as valid but less justifyable.