If you’d like to do the exercise yourself, it takes just a few minutes:
- Write a short list of 5 or 6 decisions you have made that you felt were good.
- For each decision, write down your process, or how you went about making the decision.
- Ask yourself what patterns you noticed?
- As a bonus, compare what you did with decisions you aren’t too happy about, and see if you notice a difference in your process.
On our call we had several different leaders with a wide variety of styles, so we expected to get some good examples of different decision making models. Before you read on, you may want to do the exercise yourself, so you can compare your answers to ours.
Here are the decision making patterns we noticed in our group discussion:
- The decisions people remembered were the big ones – the stressful ones where there wasn’t a clear right answer, and either choice they made required a risk and / or sacrifice.
- Most people gathered information first, including all the facts and opinions; but what triggered the final decision was usually a burst of clarity or conviction that could feel like an “aha”, or a realization of something internally, for example, of what we were and weren’t willing to sacrifice.
- In fact, some of our members noted that in decisions they regretted, they had actually over-relied on facts and disregarded the “inner voices”.
The decisions we discussed were both business and personal: to invest in a particular product line; to hire an expensive resource; to outsource a process; to fire an employee; to marry or to divorce; to move into a bigger house or a bigger building; to take a job that paid half as much; to publicly correct a superior; and to say no to what appeared to be significant business opportunities or personal responsibilities.
These decisions were not easy. In all cases all choices presented a risk or a sacrifice and there were no guarantees that any choice would work. The people who stayed stuck the longest were often waiting for some reassurance of a “right” path – and they defined “right” as “this is the choice that will work out best”. However, with no way to control the outcome, they had to find a way to get unstuck without that reassurance.
I think this is where vision, values and purpose came in – the inner guidance.
When you can’t guarantee an outcome, you have to consider the worst case scenarios and how you will handle them. Ultimately you find that some negative outcomes sit better with you than others. Or that you are willing to sacrifice some things more readily than others. These distinctions might not even be conscious.
For example, I have decided that I’d rather be engaged mentally and free to be creative in my work than to have more money in my bank account. If you ask me if money matters I will always tell you yes – money is very important to me. But when I compared two work opportunities and one paid more compared to one that excited me more, I noticed a sense of drudgery and inner defiance as I considered letting go of the exciting one to take the one that paid more. And when I considered walking away from the extra money to take the more exciting job, I noticed myself automatically figuring out how I could make it work financially. This was the “aha,” that told me my choice.
Some of the most memorable decisions I’ve made in my life were the ones that went against the obvious facts. They were the ones where I did my due diligence, and had a clear answer, but knowing the obvious answer had an immediate negative internal effect on me: drain, boredom, dread, repulsion, a sick feeling in my stomach. And so despite the facts, despite the fear, despite knowing I was doing something “stupid”, I moved forward with the decision that “felt right”, and in all cases, I was grateful later that I had followed my intuition.
However, I don’t think my intuition would have been as clear if I hadn’t analyzed the facts first. I also think that there were probably many cases where I analyzed the facts, got an obvious answer, and went with it, completely satisfied that I had made the right decision. Those decisions aren’t as memorable, because they weren’t as stressful. I believe what made these particular intuitive decisions memorable for me were the high emotional stakes involved, including the surprise at my own conviction, the fear of doing something everyone thought was crazy, and the relief when I later realized that despite all – I had done the right thing for myself.
So what is the lesson here? I don’t believe it is to throw away factual analysis and make your gut priority. But I do believe it shows where the seemingly “fluffy” work like values clarification, vision and mission, can directly impact productivity – both personally and at an organizational level. The question of which sacrifice is more tolerable always comes down to personal values.
In fact, all the values clarification exercises I have ever used involve taking the things that are most important to you and putting them at odds with each other, forcing yourself to consider sacrificing one in favor of another until you have them prioritized. For example, would you give up your honesty to save the life of your child? Would you take on a big client that required you to fire your long-standing current clients? The choices are NOT fun to make – but they do bring you clarity.
It turns out that when you are clear on your purpose and values, decisions come faster and easier. That saves time and resources.
The discussion helped our business leaders see the value in spending time on vision and purpose within their organizations, as now they could see a direct correlation between having that clarity, making better decisions more quickly, and being more productive overall as an organization.
On a personal level, it helps show the value of self-discovery – getting clear on who you are, what you want, what your life purpose or personal mission is. Often it feels self-indulgent to spend time doing this work, but it was interesting to see how directly it impacts decision making – and especially the big emotional decisions we make.