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Your typical day is a string of choices. 

What route should you take to work? Which task should you cross off your to-do list first? Should you work at your desk or in the common area? What should you pick up for your colleague’s birthday celebration?

And then there are those big, career-making, business-driving decisions that keep you up at night, like how to price your product or what features to release next. 

You’re making decision after decision all the time, and it can really start to wear on you. (This is something formally known as decision fatigue, if you want to be extra impressive at your next trivia night.) 

Fear not, there’s good news ahead: decision making doesn’t need to be so draining and anxiety-inducing. Refining your decision-making process can help you make effective judgments without a lick of stress.

Did we pique your interest? We thought so. We’re covering everything you need to know to make positive and painless choices.

What exactly is decision making?

We don’t really need to tell you what decision making is, but we will. It’s the mental process you go through to make a choice or select a course of action. It applies to small choices (like what band to listen to on your commute) and big ones too (like whether or not you should relocate for that job). It’s also a process you’ll go through whether you’re making individual choices or for your entire team. 

Let’s stick with a simple example for clarity: you’re hemming and hawing over whether you want a salad or a burrito for a quick lunch.

Now, you’d cycle quickly through some different activities to make your choice. Maybe you’d think through some criteria – like what’s cheaper or what you ate most recently. Or, perhaps you’d ask the opinions of your team members who might want to order in something too.

Those things (plus many more!) are all part of your decision-making process – the series of steps you follow to land on your final pick.

It really is pretty simple for those smaller, seemingly inconsequential choices. After all, no matter how delicious it is, a burrito probably isn’t going to be a life-altering thing for you. 

But, more complex decisions often demand a more complex process. That’s why there are tons of diverse frameworks and models for decision making, from a good, old-fashioned pros and cons list to a matrix that will help you evaluate your choices. We’ll dig into some of the most common frameworks in detail a little later.

The benefits: Why good decision making is a good thing

When you’re already breaking into a sweat about needing to make a choice, evaluating and refining your decision-making process probably isn’t top of mind. 

We get it. However, there are a lot of benefits to making sure you have a rock solid decision-making process in place, including:

A better thinking cap

Decision making doesn’t happen naturally for a lot of us. It can be tough (and that’s exactly why this guide exists). Making a choice requires that you rely on your critical thinking skills because you need to collect and analyze information in order to decide which way to go.

Get more done

How much time would you save if you didn’t have to toss and turn over every single choice? Refining your decision-making skills gives a major boost to your productivity; you can feel good about the direction you’re going in less time and with far less stress.

Greater trust and confidence

The ability to make a swift and well-informed decision, as opposed to waffling over how to move forward, inspires confidence from your team. After all, how much would you trust a leader who couldn’t seem to make a choice and navigate you through a tricky scenario? Not much, right? That might be why 63% of employees say their leaders are somewhat or not at all credible.

Decision-making models to streamline your thought process

Balance weighing items

Alright, you get that effective decision making is important. But, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. 

Take comfort in the fact that you don’t have to wing it. Here are a few of the most common decision-making models, a brief rundown of what they are, and some possible challenges you’ll want to keep your eye out for.

Vroom-Yetton-Jago Decision Model

This model doesn’t actually direct you to a final choice, but it’s a great first step in helping you sort out what to do next by leading you to one of five possible decision-making processes that can get you to your end goal.

This model is helpful when you need to make a decision for your entire team. You’ll kick off this exercise by answering a series of seven different “yes” or “no” questions. After working through a decision tree, you’ll arrive at a code that identifies the ideal decision-making path for you and your team. MindTools, a site that offers leadership and management resources, explains that these include:

  • Autocratic (A1): You rely on the information (and not additional input from your team) to make your decision. 
  • Autocratic (A2): You talk with your team to get more specific information and then make your final choice. 
  • Consultative (C1): You ask the opinions of team members individually without bringing the whole group together. You then use that information to make the final decision. 
  • Consultative (C2): You pull the whole team together for a group conversation about the decision and then use that information to make a decision on your own. 
  • Collaborative (G2): You work with your team to reach a group consensus about the best way forward. Your job is to facilitate the discussion, rather than making the final choice yourself. 

This model relieves the pressure of feeling paralyzed by your decision, as it will point you to some actionable next steps. However, some critics say that it can be a little too rigid and doesn’t leave much room for you to customize according to your situation or opinion.

The Ladder of Inference

It’s easy to jump to conclusions when making decisions, but the Ladder of Inference maps out a thought process you should go through to avoid relying on your own biases and assumptions.

Using this framework, start at the bottom of the ladder and work your way up without skipping any rungs. These steps include:

  • Observing data
  • Selecting data
  • Adding meaning to the data
  • Making assumptions based on that meaning
  • Drawing conclusions
  • Adopting beliefs based on those conclusions
  • Taking action

Working your way through each rung helps to combat your natural inclination to jump to conclusions. A challenge of this model is that it’s tempting to select data that supports our existing assumptions, which is known as a recursive loop

For example, if you already have the impression that one of your team members is lazy, you might be way more attuned to all of the times she passes the buck and completely overlook her real contributions.

DACI Framework

You’re not always making decisions by yourself. In the workplace, a lot of the choices you make affect other team members and departments, which means you’ll be dealing with a lot of (often competing) opinions and ideas about which way you should go.

Here at Atlassian, we’re big fans of using the DACI framework to clarify roles for group decision making and prevent having too many cooks in the kitchen.

With this framework, you assign people to different roles:

  • Driver: The one person who’s in charge of corralling all of the stakeholders, gathering the necessary information, and getting a decision at each milestone.
  • Approver: The one person who makes the final decision.
  • Contributors: These people have a voice but no vote. They can lend knowledge and expertise that might influence the decision.
  • Informed: These people aren’t active players in the process, but are informed of the final choice. 

This is helpful for making sure that everybody knows where they stand and how much pull they have. On the flip side, it could make people wary of stepping on toes, so they may take a retreat from being actively involved in the decision-making process. 

Decision Matrix

One of the toughest aspects of making decisions is juggling all the variables. For instance, if you’re choosing between two freelancers for a copywriting project, you might need to think about their expertise, cost, and upcoming availability. 

However, what if one freelancer seems awesome to work with but doesn’t ace all of those categories? How can you choose?

A Decision Matrix requires that you assign a weight (basically, an amount of importance) to each of those factors and then do some simple math to make a choice that best satisfies all of your criteria.

It’s a great way to think through all of the important aspects that could influence your choice, but turn on your bias radar. We’re not saying you will, but it’s easy to weigh certain factors more than others without realizing it, which can affect your final outcome. 

Level up your decision making skills

Graduation cap

Beyond relying on frameworks, how else can you transform yourself into an expert decision maker?

To start, get a baseline of where your decision-making skills currently rank. Take this brief assessment to evaluate your existing way and uncover what might need work. 

Regardless of how you score, it’s always helpful to get your hands on some tips. So, let’s go over a few important reminders to hone your decision-making capabilities.

Beware of biases

You probably noticed that we mentioned biases or jumping to conclusions a couple of times when we were discussing the different decision-making models. That’s because the pesky assumptions you already have can quickly creep in and sabotage your ability to make sound decisions.

Cognitive biases are natural, so basically, kind of unavoidable. One of the best ways to keep them in check is to consistently question the information you’re using to guide your choice.

For example, if you’re already counting a team member out from being able to contribute to a shared project, ask yourself why. Did they mention that they were too busy or are you assuming that? Do they really not have the expertise you need or have you not dug deep to learn all that they can do?

Challenge yourself to be as objective as possible. It also never hurts to run your thoughts by someone else to get an unbiased opinion.

Use data as your guide

Another great way to keep biases at bay? Rely on data to inform your decisions.

Can you get your hands on metrics about how a similar project performed in the past? What about feedback on what went well and what didn’t? Are there any sort of insights that would support going one direction over the other?

When the hard facts are collected, data doesn’t lie, which makes it a bias-proof resource you can rely on to guide your decisions.

Think through short-term and long-term effects

When you’re stuck in the middle of your decision-making process, tunnel vision is almost inevitable. You become so focused on just choosing your way forward that you might not necessarily think through the ripple effect it’ll inspire.

Imagine that you’re deciding whether or not to extend the timeline for a project your team is working on. It’s crunch time, and you’re worried you won’t get it completed by the deadline.

If you only think through short-term effects, pushing out that deadline seems like a no-brainer. You’ll remove some stress from your team’s plate, give them more time to produce quality work, and make them feel supported.

If you zoom out further and analyze the long-term effects, there’s much more to consider than initially meets the eye. Delaying that timeline will undoubtedly push back the later projects you already scheduled, and you’ll start to create the expectation that deadlines are suggestions rather than rules.

Thinking short-term and long-term adds some complexity (we know, it’s the last thing you want), but it will help you make the best, most logical decision.

Speak openly with your team

When you’ve finally made a decision, you’d love for your team to rally together and put the pedal to the metal. 

But here’s the thing: your team won’t be ready and raring to carry out your decision if they don’t totally understand the context around it.

So, after you’ve come to your conclusion, let your team know how you got there. What factors did you consider? What do you hope to achieve along this path? 

Looping your team in on your decision will make them feel like a part of the process (rather than the recipients of one-sided directions) and will help them do a better job of following through on that choice. In one 2015 survey, 57% of respondents said that they would perform better at their jobs if they understood the company’s direction. 

How decision making works in project management

Blueprint

We’ve covered a lot about making decisions here. So, let’s boil all of this down into some simple steps you can follow. 

Know that all of the frameworks and tips we’ve already covered can be incorporated into the basic process we’ll outline below. Think of the following steps as a blueprint that you can tweak and add to based on the specific choice you’re making.

Let’s say you’ve secured budget to add somebody new to your team. You have a lot of needs, so you need to figure out which type of position needs to be filled most urgently. Here are the seven steps you’d follow:

  • Zone in on the goal of your decision: Decide what your next hire should be.
  • Get your hands on information: What upcoming projects are on your team’s schedule? What expertise are you lacking to pull those off? What skills are you currently outsourcing?
  • Identify your options: After thinking through that information, you’ve narrowed it down to a graphic designer, copywriter, or SEO specialist.
  • Evaluate your choices: Now it’s time to weigh these options. Is one already being covered by an existing team member without a lot of hassle? Is there a need your team feels strongly about?
  • Make your choice: Based on all of the evidence, you’ve landed on hiring a graphic designer.
  • Take action: Woo! Make that offer and get that team member onboarded.
  • Review your decision: Gather some insights you can use next time by asking the team for feedback about the choice that was made. 

That’s the decision-making process in project management in its simplest form. But again, there’s room to add some of the other elements we’ve discussed here.

For example, maybe you’ll make use of a Decision Matrix in the step where you have to evaluate your choices. Or, perhaps you’ll consciously set aside your own bias against bringing in another copywriter and keep it as an option because you know your current copywriters are spread thin. 

Remember, the above is a very barebones decision-making process. You can and even should tailor or add to it.

Take (most of) the stress out of making decisions

You need to make decisions on a daily basis – from small, short-term choices to major ones that impact your entire team.

Are you huffing into a paper bag just thinking about it? Have no worries...especially since stress has been shown to change how people make decisions. And hey, you need to be clear-headed here! 

So, set down the paper bag and use this as your guide. You’ll be well on your way to making efficient and effective decisions (with as little stress as possible).

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