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It’s Critical You Do This When Making a Tough Decision

Ray Carvey, executive vice president of corporate learning at Harvard Business PublishingRay Carvey, executive vice president of corporate learning at Harvard Business Publishing
Ray Carvey, executive vice president of corporate learning at Harvard Business Publishing

The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question “How do you make tough business decisions?” is by Ray Carvey, executive vice president of corporate learning at Harvard Business Publishing.

Making tough decisions is a fundamental leadership responsibility. Today, management is more organic and less hierarchical than ever before, and strategic decision-making belongs to an ever-widening circle. More people are making tough decisions that have a significant impact on performance. Yet in a world where complexity and ambiguity are the norm, it’s getting harder to make good decisions. I’ve been making tough decisions for a long time, and have come to realize that the decision-making process is the most overlooked step in making better decisions. Over time, I’ve developed a relatively simple approach that has made me more agile and more decisive at the same time: do your homework and trust your instincts. While it sounds simple, I see people shortcutting these basic principles all the time. The more complex and tougher the decision, the more homework you’ll need to do.

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But the homework isn’t like yesterday’s approach of best practice research or copying the winning formula of competitors. You need to dig deeper and mine current thought leadership that can help inform your thinking, including articles from management reviews, case studies, and videos. Part of doing your homework also means listening. I talk things through with the experts I know, and members of senior leadership. I’m also a big proponent of skip-level meetings: tapping into the minds of younger employees to get their perspective.

Once you’ve done your homework, it’s critical to trust your instincts. When I say instincts I’m referring to the cumulative experiences I’ve had: formal classroom learning, experiential learning from decisions I’ve made, and the tools and networks I’ve developed. And these experiences aren’t acquired over night; they are acquired over time. Which is why formal or informal learning that incorporates opportunities to make real-world decisions is so valuable. And trusting instincts, especially amidst the daily noise, helps speed decision-making. Too many organizations miss their opportunity because they simply take too long to decide. In today’s complex environment, these two steps are very nuanced. Things rarely turn out to be as straightforward as when you put your initial plans together. Reality tends to intrude: your competition comes out with a game-changer, a new “must-have” technology emerges, there’s growing economic and political volatility in your markets. Your plans can’t have concrete poured around them — they’ll need to be reviewed and modified.

I’ll end with this: If you make a lot of decisions, you’re bound to make a bad decision at some point. We all do. What you do then is defining, both for you and your organization. First, you need to acknowledge the bad decision; learn from it; and then change it decisively. What if you were half-way through a multi-million dollar project, and received feedback that stopped you dead in your tracks? What if an audience that you thought would be receptive was, in fact, stunned into silence by the direction you’d taken? Making a directional change months into a project is expensive and painful. My advice: don’t be afraid to start over. It will cost you in the short term, but sometimes, success takes righting a bad decision with the good one. I’ve lived through this, and you will too.