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How to Avoid the Biggest ‘Decision Trap’ in Business

October 22, 2019, 2:02 PM UTC
FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit 2019
011rFORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit 2019rOctober 22nd, 2019 rWashington, DCrr7:00 AMrMPW PROGRAM TRACK BREAKFAST CONCURRENT SESSIONSrDECISION TRAPS rLeadership Track, hosted by DeloitterDr. Vicki Medvec, whose Fortune MPW sessions on how to negotiate have been among the Summit’s most popular, turns her expertise to decision making. How can you avoid decision traps? How can your organization unclog its decision-making processes? Dr. Medvec has answers and plenty of advice.rVictoria Medvec, Co-founder and Executive Director, Kellogg Center for Executive Women, Northwestern UniversityrModerator: Pattie Sellers, FORTUNErrPhotograph by Stuart Isett for Fortune
Photograph by Stuart Isett for Fortune

Business professionals might not realize it, but they’re at risk at falling into a treacherous ‘decision trap.’ How so? By unnecessarily escalating decision making. 

Victoria Medvec, co-founder and executive director of the Kellogg Center for Executive Women at Northwestern University, warned of the danger at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. 

Escalating decision making means top executives are too focused on small matters. That can have troublesome trickle-down effects: it causes overall slowness in business, forces more errors, and keeps employees from developing their own decision making skills. All that can impede asset value and thwart innovation.

And ultimately, focusing on the small stuff may mean the big stuff goes unaddressed. Micromanagement at senior levels can lead to crises, Medvec said. When senior executives are paying attention to low-level risks, they’re not paying enough attention to high-level ones, she said.

Executives can avoid that pitfall by developing and referencing a risk continuum for their business that takes into account who should be making decisions, how much time decisions merit, and how comfortable those involved are with getting the decision wrong. Those guidelines can help ensure firm leaders are focused on matters that fall on the higher end of the spectrum.

Medvec, in conversation with Fortune’s Pattie Sellers, also shared other tips on decision making. On involving introvert employees in decision making, she suggested asking staff members to write down suggestions first, before calling on them to share the information publicly. Such “individual collection” of information, she said, “is going to tap expertise and neutralize the differences between introverts and extroverts.”

“It gives everyone the wedge in,” she said.

She also encouraged attendees of the Fortune conference to eliminate decision “churn”—the re-litigation of decisions that should have been done and dusted—by identifying its source. Executives that seek to revisit past decisions often do so for political reasons, she said. That process stymies execution because those carrying out decisions will question if they’re final.

What’s more, she reminded those in the audience that decision making is a muscle that business professionals at all levels must develop. If it’s not exercised, she said, it will atrophy.

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