Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Decisions, decisions

Proper strategic thinking benefits all

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If you really think about it, life and our work are full of choices and decisions. At home, we make choices and decisions regarding what to wear, what to eat, what to do day-to-day, who our friends are and where we might intend to go. At work, we make choices and decisions that help us in our careers, help bring about successful results for our employers and hopefully lead us to job satisfaction. Yet, as we know, many people do not make good life choices or make good decisions either at home or at work.

However, good decision-making skills are absolutely critical, especially if you are in a leadership role. After all, your decisions impact both employees and the organization, and will have long-term and costly impacts on overall success, perhaps long past your own tenure. As well, if your decisions are not well thought-out and reasoned, if they are not made or carried out in a timely manner and/or if you are inconsistent, you'll soon lose the trust and respect of your employees.

When a leader makes an error in judgment, you'll more than likely find he or she failed to collect sufficient data and/or failed to review important data that was available. He or she may also have failed to consider the time and cost of the proposed solutions and/or whether or not their organization had the skills to implement them. Finally, leaders can mistakenly apply an assumption based on earlier experience only to realize too late the assumption was incorrect.

One of the key challenges for our future leaders is that we now live in a global and volatile business environment and this creates increased pressure on leaders to apply good decision-making. In fact, some researchers refer to this new environment as one of "extreme complexity" that will require extraordinary strategic thinking skills.

Yet, do good decision-making skills come naturally? Can decision-making skills be learned? While many of our personal decisions can be made intuitively, most decisions and especially those in the workplace definitely need a more formalized process. Leaders should be trained in some of the following strategies.

Grid analysis -- This method works well when there are a number of alternatives and several factors to take into account. Create a grid by listing your options in a table row and then the factors you need to consider in columns. You can then provide a weighting for each factor and then score each option or factor. The total score gives you direction as to your decision.

Paired comparison analysis -- When comparing "apples to oranges," the paired comparison methodology allows you to assess the importance of a number of options relative to one another. List all your options and assign a letter (a,b,c,d) so you only make a comparison once. Score the difference between the options, then add up your values and convert these to percentages to make your decision.

Pareto analysis -- This is a well-known and common decision-making strategy known as the "80/20 Rule" or in other words, the concept that 20 per cent of causes generate 80 per cent of results. List your areas of challenge and then brainstorm the potential causes. Score the problems and then group them into common causes. Those with the highest scores will become your top priority.

Go/no-go decision -- This requires a clear definition of the problem, brainstorming and generating alternative solutions and then determining a go/no-go decision. Consider deferring a decision without losing the advantage of making the decision at another time or create incremental steps in order to reduce the risk. Examine the potential of low-cost exits and find ways and means to control the timing.

Impact analysis -- Clearly define your area of challenge, ensure you have access to all the right information, brainstorm the seven common areas that will be impacted by your decision including strategy, structure, systems, shared values, skills, styles and staff. Next, list all the possible positive and negative impacts you can think of, assess the size and consequences and make a decision.

Cost-benefit analysis -- This strategy involves adding the benefits with respect to a potential action and then comparing this to the costs in order to estimate a "payback" period.

While decision-making tools are indeed useful, tomorrow's leaders also need to develop strategic-thinking skills. This requires that individuals think through both analysis and synthesis, linearly and non-linearly, as well as implicitly, explicitly and intuitively. It requires generating hypotheses and testing them out by asking a number of critical questions. It requires leaders to be open to ideas and be creative, yet at the same time recognize when a solution is both realistic and achievable. It requires leaders to be visionary; picture the future, interpret challenges and develop plans to reach their goals.

Some leaders have natural abilities for strategic thinking while others do not. However, there are many leadership-training programs that help leaders to develop this skill. These programs teach participants to adapt a systems-thinking orientation and provide learning experiences that help to teach creativity, intuition and the insight process. More specifically, programs focus on competencies such as understanding customer needs and marketplace and competitive dynamics, how to advocate for innovation, take calculated risks, make decisions and communicate priorities. Participants also focus on how to influence others, develop relationships and to inspire people to follow and engage in high personal performance.

However, another key element of strategic thinking is specific training and experience should not simply be limited to senior executives. These senior leaders need to build a culture of strategic-thinking skills throughout the organization. This environment is innovative and creative where new ideas abound and employees are invited to challenge current systems. Finally, leaders need to provide experiences for employees that cultivate and reinforce strategic thinking.

Our old way of thinking and decision-making is no longer enough. We need to apply create systematic decision-making strategies while at the same time engaging in strategic thinking.

Barbara J. Bowes is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at barb@legacybowes.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2013 H1

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