Stop Thinking and Start Acting: Seven Tips for Making Executive Decisions

There's an image making the rounds on the Internet titled "Executive Decision Making System." It shows a picture of both faces of a penny, heads labeled "Yes" and tails labeled "No." From an outside perspective, that may seem hilariously true—and as a leader yourself, you've probably run into cases where you'd prefer to just flip a coin to settle something, rather than wade through all the pros and cons.

You may even have done it once or twice. And don't you feel better after having made a decision? Most of us do.

Rita Mae Brown, an American activist and novelist, once said "A peacefulness follows any decision, even the wrong one." She was certainly no stranger to high-level decision making. Though the world mostly knows her as a writer of cozy mysteries, Brown is an ardent civil rights proponent and feminist, and she was an early member of the National Organization of Women. Shortly after its founding, she accepted an administrative position in the fledgling organization. When NOW president Betty Friedan later made public comments Brown strongly disagreed with, implying that it was acceptable and even desirable to exclude some individuals from the women's movement, Brown had a decision to make: should she support Friedan's statements as the company line, or should she resign in protest? She followed her heart and resigned.

The Business Perspective

While most of your business decisions won't prove as intensely personal as Brown's, many will significantly impact your organization, and some will be painfully difficult. But rather than dig in your pocket and let Abe Lincoln to make such a decision for you, test your choices against a few simple guidelines and imperatives.

1. Core values. If you're in alignment with your organization's core values, some decisions will come surprisingly easily. For example, a reputable charity wouldn't charge people a fee before it responded to an emergency. Similarly, a company founded by individuals with strong religious convictions might choose to shut down on holy days; that's one of the reasons why the entire Chick-fil-A restaurant chain closes on Sundays. While it could no doubt make excellent profits were it to remain open, it seems to be doing better than just fine.

2. Mission and vision. Does the decision fit your organizational mission, and will it get you closer to your overall goals, however incrementally? Deciding whether or not to buy a particular type of paper may not matter much to most companies, but it's certainly a big deal to a printer. The choice may differ depending on whether the printer's mission and vision focuses on quality, reputation, value, or a less tangible principle.

3. The bottom line. While return on investment (ROI) may not matter as much to a charity (although it's still critically important to stay functional), it tops the list for most for-profit businesses. In the long run, will this decision make your company money or not? Include all the factors you can think of, and remember: it's what matters in the long run that counts. Saving money this month by laying off a third of your workforce won't help you long-term if the rest keel over from exhaustion or leave the organization in droves, causing your company to fall apart.

4. The outcome. Follow the potential decision to its logical conclusion, or at least as far as you can. Can you see danger lurking somewhere down that path? Is this a "slippery slope" decision that could lead to other bad decisions? Does one possible outcome satisfy you more than the others? What contingency plans can you put into place?

5. The opportunity cost. Every choice closes other doors. If you make a decision to do something, what will it keep you from doing in the future? Is what you'll miss worth missing out on? What other trade-offs will you face?

6. Efficient use of time and resources. Will the decision slow down workflow and efficiency? If so, you'd better choose "tails" unless some benefit offsets the wasted resources.

7. The fact that you have to do something. In a sense, you make a decision even when you refuse to act...but that's no better than depending on a coin toss. Don't just react to the world as it changes; work proactively to change it.

You can't account for every factor that may affect a decision after you've made it—and let's face it—you might make the wrong decision altogether. But at least you won't just be sitting on the sidelines. Give all your business decisions careful consideration before you make them. Don't just jump in without thinking, but don't let meditation overcome motion, either. And don't let chance—or a coin toss—dictate your organization's fate.

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Stop Thinking and Start Acting: Seven Tips for Making Executive Decisions

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