How to make decisions, in one chart

Strategic decision making feels like the ultimate buzzword in some ways, because (a) “strategy” somehow became a buzzword at many companies and (b) so did “decision-making.” When you combine ’em? Hoo boy.

But still, work is really just a series of decisions that need to be made. Ideally some of them would be made strategically. But how exactly is that going to happen?

You need to understand a bigger ecosystem here before we get to a nice little visual.

The strategic decision making ecosystem

First, you need to understand that many of us spend a lot of time at work. It’s a defining feature of the second act of our lives. Because of that massive time investment, work becomes closely associated with both (a) self-worth and (b) relevance.

This is where decision-making becomes a challenge. By definition, making a decision puts both self-worth and relevance on the line. What if you make the wrong decision? It would represent a hit to both.

This, in turn, creates a lot of work stress. Work stress is so normative now that the current lead article on HBR is “How To Work With Someone Who’s Always Stressed Out.” I don’t have metrics on that article, but I’d bet a lot of people read it — because it’s daily life for a lot of us (and heck, we’re doing it to others).

Now move over to this article from First Round Review about decision-making in scaling startups. We’re going to steal a visual from them in a second, but before we do, note this:

“Eventually, we asked our Learning and Development team to interview our engineering leads about what was causing them stress,” Shklarski says. “It always came back to the difficulty around making decisions. There was little alignment among the different voices on each team, and a lack of strong leadership to help negotiate a path forward.”

So what’s happening in this quote: silo thinking + need for strategic decision making + quest for relevance + limited time + Temple of Busy is causing stress.

What ever shall we do?

The visual

Here you go:

Pretty basic, right? You’ve got two choices on anything. What are the benefits, costs, and mitigations? Here is a simplified version about whether you should refactor (tweak) or rebuild (destroy) some billing software:

I know we all love us some process and need 72 check boxes for everything, but sometimes simplicity should be the goal.

Just simply weigh those options and make the decision that seems logical from what you’ve weighed. Bam boom bingo.

Dirty little secret: strategic decision making can never be real

Maybe in startups or “solo-preneur” situations, sure. But in a company, any decision needs to be filtered through lots of politics and stakeholders. By the time you come out the other side, most “strategy” has been stripped from it — the goal is to make money and prove growth while keeping costs down. It’s really that simple. That, in fact, is the strategy. People very infrequently understand the difference between “strategy” and “operations.”

Moreso than making sure you’re doing good ol’ strategic decision making, I’d personally dedicate more resources to aligning strategy and execution. That’s where companies fall apart at the seams. Typically the “strategy,” such as it is, is set at the highest (compensation) levels. The “execution,” such as that were, occurs at the employee level. When the communication between those two levels falters (often does), both priority and project objective go out the window. At that point, it really doesn’t matter how awesome your strategic decision making was. Ain’t no one executing on it, and balls will be dropped.

Anything else you’d add on strategic decision making?

Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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