10 Tips for Making Executive Decisions in Ambiguity


by Dawna Jones, author of Decision Making for Dummies on Steve Denning's (Forbes) list of 8 Noteworthy Books for 2014

The scenario is ubiquitous: either you don't have enough information to feel certain you're making the right decision or you don't know you're missing key information. Market conditions are changing fast! Disruptive innovations are noticeably impacting traditional business models. If executives are to navigate the ambiguity and uncertainty with greater ease and efficacy, a much broader perspective, access to a wider range of innate but inactive intelligences and flexible thinking is required. Add the need for greater deep-seated comfort with ambiguity and executives are challenged to attain greater fulfillment.

The future of your company depends on capacity to replace old habits with decision-making awareness skills more suitable for uncertainty and ambiguity.

  1. Switch from basing your decisions on beliefs (what worked in the past) to values (which design the future). Beliefs serve to rationalize past experience or how the world works and may or may not be true. The riskiest belief limiting business profitability is the notion that the purpose of a business is to create profit. In fact, much higher profitability and value creation results when companies are in service to a higher goal with wider benefit. In contrast, values are transcendent. Richard Barrett explains. [See Chapter 5 of Decision Making for Dummies for more detail.]

  • Surface assumptions. Assumptions are close relatives of beliefs. Whether temporary or permanent, assumptions are frequently unknowingly made to work with uncertainty. Both assumptions and beliefs blind clear vision and steer decisions into repetitive ruts. "Ask why are we doing this? What are we taking for granted?" You'll see fresh opportunity.
  • Include diverse perspectives. Involve thinkers who hold a divergent view from your own. You'll gain insight into how the decision might play out, what else needs to be considered and identify missing important information.
  • Decentralize decision making to the people closest to the 'problem'. Real time accurate information gets distorted enroute to the top. The gap jeopardizes rapid response. Giving those closest to the situation the authority to make decisions provides autonomy and creates shared responsibility for creating workable solutions.
  • Be aware of where you are placing focus. Is it on internal goals? Or on the customer? Or can you, as Lew Veraldi of Ford did, ask questions that forge a bridge between internal goals and the customer? A subtle shift in focus makes a big difference to what decisions are made and how teams perform.
  • Ford's V.P. Lew Veraldi formed a cross functional inter-disciplinary team cutting across traditional siloes. He wanted to make the Taurus a commercial success so he directed focus toward the customer experience. He'd say to the engineers: "Tell me something about this design that you're proud of." When an engineer would report on the electrical output of the alternator he'd ask: "How will the electrical output of the alternator affect the customer experience?" His line of questioning led to all sorts of engineering innovations.

  • Take the emotional pulse of the company's workplace. For many, the idea of mixing emotions and decision-making is heresy but the study of epigenetics tells us otherwise. Context is everything. The health of the emotional and social environment triggers either more risk adverse decisions or supports risk tolerant decisions required for innovation. Negatively saturated or fear based decisions compromise growth. Rabbits frozen by headlights usually die.
  • Weigh the impact of your decisions on employees, customers, the communities your company serves and on ecological and social health.
  • "We pretend that what we do doesn't have an effect on people. We do that in our personal lives. We do that corporate -- whether it's a bailout, an oil spill, a recall.... "- Brene Brown, TED Talk, Power of Vulnerability

  • Design your decisions to accommodate biases. The biggest illusion in business is that rational decision-making is rational. Over 150 cognitive biases distort perception and accuracy. Unfortunately being aware of bias doesn't eliminate it from operating when making decisions. Design the decision process to remove bias from the equation. You'll find a short list of typical biases in Chapter 4 of Decision Making for Dummies.
  • Balance rational with intuitive decision-making. At the executive level, the majority of decisions rely on intuition informed by available information. What entrepreneurs know most corporate decision makers don't, is that your intuition detects what is not being said. Reading beneath the surface of facts and figures gives you an instinct for knowing when you have to make an unpopular decision because it's the smart thing to do. You gain access to foresight - something facts can't do.
  • Regulate your emotions. Decisions made when you're angry, frustrated, or highly stressed compromise both rational and intuitive faculties. Pay attention to your heart's well-being. Bring yourself back into an emotional state of peace before making any big high stakes decisions. Take a calming walk before arriving to a final decision.
  • The standard Wall Street boilerplate disclaimer remains true but forgotten: "Past performance is no guarantee of future results."

    Financial security of companies and the people who work for them, is not to be taken for granted. Great workplaces are created and sustained through conscious oversight. The key success factor is much higher levels of executive leadership awareness operating from an expanded forward-focused mindset. Applied to decision-making, the ship can be turned around in tight conditions.

    Dawna Jones offers a sounding board - mentoring service for executives and change agents seeking insights and ways to better navigate difficult dynamics, particularly collisions between traditional thinking and what's needed to adapt. Think of it as cultural oversight. Logically, risk exposure is reduced by engaging creativity and deeper intelligences.

    Workshops focus on the advanced decision-making skills and elevated awareness required for seeing through complexity to expand flexibility and perception. Dawna is also the author of Decision Making for Dummies, on Steve Denning's (Forbes) list of 8 noteworthy books for 2014. She blogs for Huffington Post Great Workplaces and hosts the Evolutionary Provocateur podcast. Contact via LinkedIn or at Dawna@FromInsightToAction.com.