The Key to Making Better Decisions: Be a Strategic Procrastinator

Sometimes the best decision is not to decide. Here's how to use procrastination as a strategic tool.

Decision-making is a core executive skill. It's also one that I see many CEOs and leadership teams struggle with on a regular basis, whether it's because discussions run in circles, individuals become attached to options, and discussions evolve into ad hominem attacks. Getting better at making decisions is one of the first things I focus on as a leadership coach.

Process is the first thing I address. Putting in place the rights steps for good decision-making--defining the issues, clarifying success criteria, exploring all options, making a choice, approving a course of action, and informing the right people quickly--will help tremendously for most teams.

Once we get the process right, we then need to turn to timing. The fact is that making decisions as quickly as possible is not always the best strategy. Waiting to make a decision has several benefits. The key is to understand the last responsible moment for making your decision. This is the point in time at which the cost of delaying a decision becomes greater than the benefit of waiting.

You can find your ideal decision time by asking two questions. First is "do we need to make this decision now?" and if the answer is yes, then ask "do we need to make all of these decisions now?" If no, then you just need to set a deadline by which you need to ask these questions again. This will dial in your decision-making timeframe.

By giving yourself more time, you'll create value in a few ways. Here are some of the key ones to keep in mind as you weigh the costs and benefits of waiting to make a decision.

Let issues resolve themselves.

Many decisions will resolve themselves given some time. Often times, leadership teams jump into situations, create policies, and swoop with edicts too quickly. While you don't want a situation to fester or exacerbate, creating some space and time for things to naturally work themselves out can be a good strategy. Leadership teams should use this as the last option on most issues, not the first line of defense.

Define "issue" more accurately.

Teams who rush into making a decision quickly will often be using limited information and perspective. Taking extra time to collect more details, gather more points of view, and dig into the details will add key insights needed to take a more strategic approach. 

Create better options.

One of the most common decision-making mistakes I see is that teams don't create enough options to consider. They race into choosing between a limited set of obvious options that are all non-optimal.

Instead, I suggest teams take the time to develop many options, even options that seem nonsensical at first. Most of the time, the best and most creative options come out after long periods of silence. Waiting a few days or even just a few hours can lead to breakthrough solutions.

Keep options open longer.

Making premature decisions will shutdown other options that might prove more valuable later. While a decision may seem obvious at the time, in another day or week, new information may come up towards it that dramatically shifts the benefit to another approach. But making decisions often means shutting other options down that you may regret.

Focus on bigger, more important issues.

Saying no to making one decision may give you time and resources to address a bigger, more important issue. Leadership teams learn quickly that there are far more decisions to make than they have the time and energy for. Learning to quickly identify and prioritize issues based on impact and risk is a key skill. It's far better for a team to focus on a few key issues and make really good decisions, than to quickly process dozens but make mediocre choices.

Save resources and money.

Waiting and making the right decision once, will be much cheaper than rushing into a problem that only needs to be fixed again and again. I've seen many teams be quick to implement a solution only to realize later they were addressing the symptom and not the root cause. Taking the time to dig into the issue and address the underlying challenge will always be the more cost effective approach in the long run.

Teams that focus on the right decisions and get good at finding the optimal decision-making timeframe will perform better and create more value for their organizations. Teams that react to each and every item that comes up may feel productive, but won't deliver the same results.

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