DECISION MAKING AT PACE IN UNCERTAIN TIMES
Balancing the need for information and the speed of decision making during uncertain times
My colleague Ian MacGillivray wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago about planning in these challenging times (Planning quickly for challenging and uncertain scenarios). That got me thinking about how on earth any of us can make decisions when we have very little idea of how things might pan out and particularly what it means about the speed of decision making in uncertain times.
Alongside my colleagues I spend a lot of my time working with senior military, engineers, accountants and lawyers. What sometimes characterises all these professions and their approach to decision making is two things: their focus on the data, and their desire for evidenced and considered decisions. But I’m going to argue that both of those things don’t stand us in good stead when facing the sort of uncertainty we’re looking at today.
First off, let’s consider the subject of ‘data’
Many years ago, I had the privilege of working alongside the Harvard Business School running over a hundred workshops on a change programme at a major global organisation. A big distinction that two of the Harvard professors kept making was between ‘data’ and ‘information’ and which of those two really matters. These days we are awash with data. We worry about owning ‘our data’, managing it, combining it, tracking it. We’ve become obsessed about tracking trends in market analysis, understanding sentiment before creating strategy and seeking evidenced courses of action before making decisions. Yet we see repeatedly that data itself is unlikely to give us the answers we need.
If I look at the leaders who are consistently successful, they are brilliant at working out what information is important and what variances need to be looked for to indicate they are going off track. Their key takeout, and the lesson from the Harvard professors, is the same: don’t focus on the data, but instead on the information required. That, plus the variance signals, will show where to delve deeper to give a true indication if things are going to plan, and data is then just the servant which delivers it.
In the current coronavirus situation, you may not have the data you would like and historical data might be a very poor indicator of the future, but my key tip is to spend some time really thinking about what information you need to make decisions and then how that determines the data you require, rather than the other way around.
So that deals with the issue of data, but what about the decisions that you make with it?
As a young impressionable divisional manager running a 100-person division of a large conglomerate and on track for another record year I was on my first trip to the USA. During the visit I spent time with the CEO of the US operation. As head of the most profitable part of the organisation, I asked him, rather naïvely, what the secret of his success was. The answer was not one I expected and has stuck with me for over thirty years. He replied explaining that a key part of managing and growing a business was making decisions and his lesson was that getting things wrong was part of making progress; the key was to keep learning from those mistakes and hopefully not making the same ones again. And all that meant being comfortable with things going wrong! That’s been a key part of my value set for many years.
Make as many right decisions as possible but be comfortable about screwing up. Hopefully not making the same screw up twice, but progress only comes from trying things, learning and then trying again.
I do wonder how often progress is stalled by not taking risks. I am incredibly conscious of the coronavirus pandemic and how in the space of just a few weeks a lot of decisions have been made where there was insufficient or incomplete data, decisions that were made in the sure knowledge they were not perfect and that journalists and politicians would seek ‘guarantees’ for something that nobody could assure.
And yet, if we have learnt nothing else from this crisis it is that quick decisions have to be made. They won’t be perfect and we have to learn quickly, fail fast and evolve the solutions. And all of that under intense scrutiny – often from those with limited knowledge of the practicalities of what needs to be done.
My big worry for organisations wanting to be match fit as we come out of the pandemic is not having the agility to take this on board. And agility is not just about speed, if we look at lessons from agile approaches then other things we should be thinking about are quick ways to capture assumptions, evidence decision points, and record how things evolve – often more visually than written. What I notice in practice is that those who are good at managing change at pace say they use their ‘gut’. In reality it is much more than that – what they do is quickly coalesce data into information and make decisions based on what they have in front of them, and they make those decisions in the sure knowledge they won’t all be right. They are comfortable with that and because they operate at pace they (rightly or wrongly) believe they can manage the consequences.
So, for me the key point is take some chances – yes, look at your risks, but waiting too long will cost. So, get comfortable about decision making with incomplete data and flaky information, make decisions quickly, and when things don’t work out quite how you expect: review and learn.
To finish, a caveat. Decision making at pace during uncertain times will never be easy. I first drafted this the day before I heard a government minister announce the arrival of a consignment of PPE from Turkey “landing in the UK today”. I reflect now on whether that premature announcement was because the data wasn’t available, and somehow I doubt it. My message of ‘make quick decisions’ should not be used as an excuse for not checking the basic details, such as, “have we placed the order yet? Is it on plane yet?” …
Hoping you find this helpful; keep safe and well
About John Moss – John’s extensive background in sales, marketing and general management has been followed by three decades in management consultancy. John is fiercely committed to helping individuals and businesses grow and succeed; his talent for spotting what needs to be done, his tenacity for making sure things then happen, his commitment to growing long-term business relationships and his ability to impart that knowledge to other people make him an inspirational consultant, leader and coach.
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