Finding the Right Forks on the Right Road

What’s wrong with this picture?Decision at a fork in the road

This is standard Microsoft clip art and I’ve used it in the past in my classes to illustrate decision-making. This is the stereotypical view of what a decision maker does—choosing among options. We talk about being “faced with a decision,” the implication being that it all starts when we have to make a choice.

A while back I read a book called “The 75 Greatest Management Decisions Ever Made” by Stuart Crainer. I wanted to see what the managers did when they were faced with a decision, how they made the choice. Each little article ended with lessons learned, but no real theme emerged. Yet when I tried to analyze what exactly these managers did to make their great choices I realized that in almost all cases they were not faced with a decision—they discovered it themselves. They realized that there was a need or opportunity to make things better, or an important goals that had been neglected. What matters is not what you do at the crossroads, but which crossroads you place yourself at and what the forks are. There is much important work to be done before you get to the position of the person in the picture.

When my daughter was young I tricked her into doing what I wanted by giving her the illusion of choice through limited options. “Do you want to wear your blue pajamas or your red pajamas when you go to bed now?” Notice that the choices do not include, “Do you want to stay up for another hour?” or even, “Do you want to sleep in the nude?” I made the big decision for her (go to bed now) and left the insignificant choice to her.

After a while she figured this out. “I don’t want either the blue pajamas or the red pajamas because I don’t want to go to bed now.” This is a great trick but, alas, it only works for so long. Surprisingly, many adults are still being fooled by this trick by their bosses, their colleagues or even the people working for them. Other people define the decision to be made and the choices and you think you are being a decision maker because you get to make the choice.

An effective decision maker will not blindly follow a road, looking for a signpost left there by someone else. He or she will seek out the great decisions to be made, possibly hidden by bushes or by other signs, or maybe on some other road entirely. You may be on the wrong road. The first question is not which fork to take, but which road. Where should I plant my own signpost? What are the choices?

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