How to be decisive while not making costly mistakes

By Patti Johnson

July 16, 2021

We are in the middle of a significant workforce transformation. The discussion about where to work, when, and how to work isn’t new, yet this year changed all of our prior assumptions. It also changed how quickly we make these decisions and with how much information. Rapid decision-making has become more the norm than the exception. Quick decisions require leaders to view trends and insights as indicators rather than to rely on historical data and experience.

For perfectionists and those who want definite answers, this is hard—sometimes even impossible. While experience is necessary for success, leaders can start to believe they need all the answers to act. But once you have all the answers, you’ve waited too long.

Perfectionists are similar to data-driven people in that making mistakes feels fatal. Unfortunately, too many stay stuck as they wait for assurance in the form of information. High achievers shy away from rapid decision-making most often.

In changing times, the goal is to make “directionally correct” decisions, versus perfect ones. The idea of directional correctness, or making decisions without every possible piece of information, can be uncomfortable but it’s necessary to meet success. Here are a few ways to make the directionally correct decisions faster and keep moving forward.

Determine how far you can see

Businesses typically rely on year-long planning separated into quarters, but last year we were fortunate if we could see two to three weeks out, or even less. Align your decision-making process with how far into the future you can see. During this trying pandemic period, we’ve proven that we can be more agile planners and incorporate new or changing information as we go.

Use these new skills to become a nimbler planner with a focus on what we can rely on in the months ahead, along with what we can change as we learn more. Consider using planning tools like Trello to support more flexible and transparent planning that engages the broader team.

When I started my business, I faced uncertainty about the future, which felt uncomfortable at first. In response, I gave myself permission to let go of my traditional definition of success and focus on the shorter-term. I didn’t have the perfect year-long business plan, because that depended on my learning and listening to the market.

As a result, I gave myself room to experiment. I didn’t set an internal expectation that I hit a home run in the first year; I set more moderate goals for myself than normal. This allowed me to face the fear of the unknown and plan in shorter increments while learning everything I could.

I had many questions I couldn’t answer with complete confidence upfront, including how to deliver projects and what range of services to offer. I learned to evaluate my current progress. Let the market and the data you collect guide you. Things might change, but continuously listening and learning as you go lets you adapt and make quicker decisions based on what you know.

Identify and contrast your options

Clarity can come from knowing all of the choices available to you, even if the perfect solution isn’t one of them. Therefore, when you feel stuck or unsure, identify your options. Start by listing all options, including doing nothing. Don’t limit yourself. Go ahead and write down any option that is remotely viable.

Lean on support networks to explore your viable options and add new ones. Talk with industry experts to gather additional perspectives. Pulling in support can help the best ideas to emerge.

Decide which options are open to consideration and identify a good, likeminded partner to help you. Weigh options based on what is most important to you and eliminate the rest. This thought process can help the best option to emerge more quickly when your choices are very clear.

Experiment with gusto

When you embrace experimentation, your decisions can be updated, expanded, or completely changed. Experimenting gives you permission to try an idea out and see whether the results are worthwhile.

When I started my business, I gave myself a little pep talk by saying it was a yearlong experiment, one that I would reevaluate in 12 months. Without this experimental mindset, I would have expected too much of myself. I may not have had the courage to do it at all.

As someone who isn’t naturally a big risk-taker, experimentation gave me the permission structure to take chances, limit my risk, and explore. The biggest change was deciding to grow my team and the business. Early on, I was working on an organizational change project for a global consumer products company. My client asked whether we could recommend a communications consultant to expand the project. We had the expertise in-house and wanted to take on the role, but our team wasn’t big enough. In that instant, I quickly realized we had to grow to meet our client needs. I learned that the type of work we wanted to do required both expertise and scale.

Course-correct with confidence

When you make quick decisions, course corrections are inevitable and assumed. Reset expectations with your team and yourself to keep moving forward and adjust when you know more. This approach humanizes your decision-making because it sets the expectation of change. Be prepared to explore what you learned last week and the week before, then adapt and adjust using this new information. If your decisions are coming fast, don’t wait for the companywide perfect answer; instead, utilize experiments so it’s easier to try something new.

People often look at leaders who have bigger titles and more experience and assume they have all the answers. And leaders often expect the same of themselves because being problem solvers got them where they are. But in reality, the best leaders embrace changing course with confidence because they ingest the best information and respond to it for the most successful result.

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that virtually nothing is certain or predictable. And in response to this uncertainty and chance, we learned new decision-making skills. In the years ahead we can remind ourselves that we have proven we can make smart and fast decisions, regardless of what comes our way.

Patti Johnson is the CEO and founder of PeopleResults, a change and learning consultancy. She’s also the author of Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life and the host of the podcast Be a Wave Maker: Conversations on Change.