Chess for money

Deadly deeds done decisively

Difficult decisions can be made easier with the application of the 'Four Cs'. 

Moving a senior member of your team can be one of the most emotionally draining decisions, particularly when there has been a history of working effectively as colleagues together. Yet often the decision, although initially painful, turns out best for the individual and the organisation, says Peter Shaw in his latest book 'Making Difficult Decisions - How to be decisive and get the business done'. Shaw is a top-flight business coach and a partner at Praesta Partners, working with senior leaders in the public, private and voluntary sectors.

Shaw has done something rarely attempted before. Not only does he set the context of reaching decisions at stressful times (such as deciding who is to go when cutting back) but, he also deconstructs the components of good decisions based on four Cs: clarity, conviction, courage and communication. He covers a huge range of decision makers and how they tackle decisions and reaches the inescapable conclusion that whatever the decision you or your organisation need to take, the principles of good decision-making are the same.

  • Clarity: Am I clear in my own mind and am I bringing enough clarity in the way I am explaining my perspective?
  • Conviction: Am I measuring my approach against my values and am I believing in what I am doing in a way that is based on experience, my values and reality?
  • Courage: Am I demonstrating both the courage to act and the courage to listen to others?
  • Communication: Am I balancing effectively, listening and explaining? Am I getting enough feedback and how well am I managing the process and the outcomes?

The heart of good decision-making, Shaw argues, is balancing clarity and conviction: "It is the interplay between analyses and beliefs, logical thinking and the gut reaction that is at the heart of how we make decisions."

His advice draws on a wide range of people in leadership positions - leaders wrestling with financial decisions, permanent secretaries heading major UK government departments, judges, a prison governor and a chief constable, senior leaders in educational establishments, hospitals, the sports world and manufacturing. His own experience is wide-ranging. Before becoming a coach, he held three director-general posts and worked in five different government departments: Treasury, Education, Employment, Environment and Transport.

Tried and tested...

A former chief executive of a European aeronautics organisation defined the factors leading to his decision-making as: clarity about outcomes and risk mitigation, understanding where the different parties are coming from and the maximum contribution they are prepared to make. Obviously, you need to have the right sources of information - ideally different sources to see if there are discrepancies. He also draws on the time-honoured diplomatic and military tactical principle of 'Never fight a battle on two fronts at the same time, since you risk being divided and conquered'.

He also draws on the experience of Norman Haste, a leader of major infrastructure projects in the UK and overseas, such as the Sizewell B nuclear power station, the Second Severn River Crossing and Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport. Haste aimed to structure the decision-making: understanding the totality of the risks included, watching the political and economic factors, and analysing the potential consequences of significant political and economic conditions, such as major increases in fuel costs. Clarity and conviction were clearly important.

Haste's other prerequisites can be summarised as creating an environment where individuals don't feel it is career threatening if they get a decision wrong; training people effectively about objectivity, risk analysis and testing options; supporting developing leaders to enable them to make decisions effectively; have advisers on tap to encourage and coach individuals; and make it clear that for all big decisions 'we are all in it together', so that an atmosphere of mutual trust is encouraged.

One of the best comments comes from Justin McCracken, formerly with ICI and now a senior regulator. His background at ICI taught him that it was often much more important to take a decision than necessarily to get it absolutely right. "It is important to be able to understand the opportunity, the cost of spending too long on some issues and not reaching others. Conviction is important. The best way of testing conviction is one-to-one discussion with other managers."

Or as John Gieve, a former top civil servant and currently deputy governor of the Bank of England, admits: "I put a lot of energy into being calm. It helps to get better decisions. It helps to give other people space to catch their breath. I have learnt to reflect. I keep calm by writing down the plusses and minuses to make myself think dispassionately. I try to talk things through both internally and externally. I rehearse what I want to say and find it immensely helpful."

The message is clear. Taking difficult decisions need not be as arduous as it sounds. It helps to have a process so that you can go through the decision step-by-step. The process will allow you to treat the particular circumstances with a certain amount of objectivity. It's also worth remembering that even the very best decision makers often suffer from doubt. There are a number of possible approaches to help address the problem, including talking through the potential benefits of a decision with different people.

An even bigger problem is facing a particularly awkward decision that may be the result of delay or fear of possible repercussions. Maybe similar decisions have proved painful in the past. Consider the possible consequences of not taking a decision and the potential damage this might cause. And when it's simply a case of courage failing you:

  • be clear in your own mind why you have made a particular decision;
  • don't let your life be dominated by this one issue;
  • hold on to personal beliefs that are most important to you;
  • try to stand back and see the situation objectively.

In an age when there is too much information rather than too little, decision-making ought to be easier, but it is often harder.

There is no mystique about decision-making. There are just more choices and more imperatives to consider: economic, financial and political. Making decisions, as Shaw says, is not just about the straight-forward weighing up of facts: "However good the information and analysis may seem, there is something else going on in our minds when a decision needs to be taken. We bring to any decision a starting perspective, an intuition or a gut feeling.
A key issue is how we use that sense of conviction in a constructive way. How do we recognise when it is a plus and when it is in danger of sending us down a blind alley?"

Applying the four Cs - clarity, conviction, courage and communication - should help us apply our intuition, values, experience and trained judgment to best effect and to listen, understand, engage and persuade. 

'Making Difficult Decisions - How to be decisive and get the business done' by Peter Shaw is published by Capstone/John Wiley £14.99

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