The runaway bridal shower

shower2My daughter just commandeered my house and yard for a bridal shower for a good friend. I can remember a time (Now, doesn’t that make me sound old!) when a bridal shower was simply held in somebody’s apartment. Everybody sat around on mismatched folding chairs with plates balanced on their laps and had cake and punch. Nice and simple.

I’ve watched my daughter stress out the last few weeks putting together this big production. You couldn’t walk through the family room for all the art projects in progress for the decorations, favors and games. There was food to arrange, tables to rent, games to create. There was a theme and colors. There were 50 people invited. The other bridesmaids were not pulling their weight. People were not getting the invitations in the mail for some reason and would need to be called.

I’m proud to say that my daughter is a take-charge person. She’s a decision maker. She figures out what needs to be done and how to do it. The problem is that she’s also a take-over person. She sees what needs to be done and picks up the slack and takes over from the slackers. As a result, she was doing most of the work herself, as she often does.

I’ve seen this in myself and others. Being a take-charge person comes with the risk of becoming a take-over person and burning yourself out. Part of being an effective decision maker is assessing the costs in money, time, energy, and lost opportunities. How much is good enough? What is the benefit of what we are planning to do? Is it worth it? Will this make the party more enjoyable? Will it make the bride-to-be feel special? Will people enjoy this or am I just showing off?

Saturday was the shower. I woke up early and came into the family room and found three young women madly cooking and decorating. There was stuff all over the house, so I ate breakfast outside. Was this going to be ready by the 11:00 party? I couldn’t imagine.

Somehow everything was ready when the guests arrived. There was a festive champagne buffet brunch with a waffle bar and a chocolate fountain. Beautifully decorated tables sat on the grass under a white canopy. Everyone had a good time and the bride was thrilled.

Afterwards, I asked my daughter whether it was worth all the weeks of work and stress. She said, yes, it was all worth it because her friend deserved it.

What do you think? Have celebrations become overly elaborate and stressful or is it all worth it? How do you keep yourself from becoming a take-over person?

The Myth of the “Right Decision”

The Myth of the “Right Decision”

stock crashSometimes bad things happen to good decisions. A few years ago my husband found a car that he really liked, but he wasn’t sure whether he could afford it. This was a difficult decision because he’s retired and living off his 401(k). He has no steady stream of income, just some savings that have to last the rest of his life. What he can afford depends on unknowns such as how long he will live and what will happen to inflation and the stock market over that period. I offered to help him out. I made a financial model of his spending and assets over the next forty years, taking into account such factors as investment mix, mortgages and tax consequences. Then I ran it as a Monte Carlo model to examine the possible effects of fluctuations in inflation and the market. This was probably the most complex analysis of a car-buying decision ever made. Maybe it was overkill, but it convinced me that he could afford the car.

He was thrilled and went out immediately and bought it. The very next day, the stock market dropped more than 700 points and took much of his 401(k) with it. I was devastated. “You can’t afford that car. I was wrong! I made the wrong decision,” I wailed. For a while it knocked the wind out of my sails and made me question my decision-making abilities. I became overly cautious.

Eventually I snapped out of it. There was nothing wrong with the decision. It was thorough, took into account all relevant considerations and available information and balanced risk and reward. There was nothing else I could have done with what I knew at the time that would have made the decision any better. Nobody anticipated the Market Crash of 2008. This was a good decision. It just had a bad outcome.

Often people will laugh when I say “it was a good decision; it just had a bad outcome,” as though there’s some inherent inconsistency in the phrase. This shows how ingrained is our thought that a decision couldn’t possibly have been good if it led to a bad outcome.

Sometimes a bad decision will have a good outcome, but it’s still a bad decision. A while back, I read an article about a woman who had won the lottery and set up a charitable foundation in her name. While this is certainly better than what most lottery winners choose to do with their winnings, I was struck by the self-congratulatory tone of the article, as if to say, “My good decision in entering the lottery has allowed me to be generous.” The fact is that entering the lottery is a bad decision from a money point of view. There’s a greater chance you’ll be killed in an accident on the way to buy the ticket than there is that you’ll win. Maybe it’s worth it as a cheap form of entertainment, but financially it’s a bad decision. But every time someone has a good outcome.

The fact is that none of us makes just one decision during our careers or lifetimes. Of all the decisions we make, some will turn out well and others poorly. People who use good decision-making techniques will generally have more good outcomes than those who don’t. Focus on the big picture and accept that sometimes good decisions turn out bad.

I’ve seen the demoralizing effect of the “bad outcome = bad decision” myth on both individuals and companies. As happened to me, people will become afraid to make decisions, avoid necessary risks and shun innovation. They may even change perfectly good decision-making strategies in a vain attempt to avoid another bad outcome. Corporations will fire excellent managers who failed once because of unforeseeable circumstances, leaving a work force afraid to stray beyond rigid norms.

Every decision involves risk. There is no guaranteed “right decision.” It’s a balancing act and all part of the art of being an effective decision-maker. If you’ve never had a good decision go bad, either you are extremely lucky or overly cautious.

Have you had a good decision go bad?

The One-Minute Decision

One minuteWe’re all barraged with decisions every day. We don’t have time for complex decision analysis. What we need is a way to make a one-minute decision. Here are some ideas:

List the pros

I found a great one-minute decision technique on the blog, “101 Questions That Will Change Your Life” by Jacqueline Garwood. Check it out for other decision-making insights.

This technique comes from Susan Jeffers’s book, ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.’ It’s based on that old standard of list-the-pros-and-cons. Here’s the twist—list only the pros. First open your mind to all the possible alternatives. For each one, list all the good things about that option. Then count the number of items in each list. The option with the most points wins. Go with it. That’s all there is to it.

I like this technique because first of all, it’s fast, and, more importantly, it focuses on the positive changes you are considering. This gets over the fear of loss that keeps us from moving forward. It keeps us focused on the positive changes that we can make.

Best and worst

You don’t even have to write anything down for this one. This is good for those decisions in which you’re trying to decide whether or not to do something. It’s just three questions:

  • What’s the best that could happen?
  • What’s the worst that could happen?
  • Is the chance of the best worth the risk of the worst?

I like this because it acknowledges that we can’t completely control the outcome and that there is a chance that it could turn out either good or bad. This is the basis for more sophisticated techniques, such as decision trees, used here for a super-quick decision.

Is it really me?

Steve Pavlina’s blog gives this technique. Rather than coming up with a list of criteria for what you’re looking for, make a list of words that describe yourself. Then choose the option that best fits that description. He gives an example of buying a desk. He saw himself as light, tough, not ornate and a little bit weird, so he was drawn to a desk with those same qualities. He’s been happy with it ever since.

Flip a coin

Yes, yes, I know. That’s a random choice and not a real decision. Here’s the twist. Pay attention to your reaction to the outcome. Are you pleased or disappointed? Were you subtly hoping for one outcome or the other? Then listen to your gut and go with it.

Prep yourself for quick decisions

In a previous post I talked about how taking the time to define your values and priorities prepares you to make quick, tough decisions. So, before you get barraged with decisions to make, ask yourself:

  • What are my (my organization’s) core values?
  • What are the resources I (we) have available for alternative solutions to the problems we expect to face?

The one-minute pre-decision

Most importantly, before you make any decision, even a one-minute one, spend a minute to be sure you’re asking the right questions. Daniel Tenner in his blog suggests the following questions before making a decision:

  • Do I actually know what the problem is?
  • Do I know the extent and impact of the problem?
  • Who is the best person to fix this problem?
  • Does this problem actually need to be fixed?

How do you make quick decisions? Can you suggest any more techniques?

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?

The Art and Science of Decision Making

ideaAre you a decision maker? Of course you are. If not for a major corporation or start-up, at least for your family or your own life. Do you want to get face-to-face with the big decision maker who can improve your life and business? Look in the mirror.

This blog is dedicated to all those who want to take charge by being a more effective decision maker. I look forward to conversations about techniques and stumbling blocks. What kinds of decisions do you struggle with? What makes them so hard? What techniques have you found to leap over those hurdles?

Being an effective decision maker helps you make the best choices, but more than that, it lets you decide what the choices are and, in fact, what problem is being solved. More than anything else, it puts you in charge of your life and your business. It is probably the most important skill for success.

So why does everybody hate making decisions? You never hear anyone say, “Yay! I have a decision to make!” Decisions are seen as stumbling blocks rather than opportunities. I have some of my own ideas on that, but I’d love to hear from you.

Decision-making is both art and science. There is an entire discipline of decision science. You can get a degree in it. Decision science teaches you how to maximize the expected value of your utility function. What does that mean? How does this apply to real people making real decisions? I hope to cut through the mumbo-jumbo and pull out techniques that you can really use.

Decision science often focuses on making a choice among alternatives, yet being an effective decision maker requires much more than this. This is where the art comes in. What is the most important problem to be solved? What are the alternatives? What does the future hold? What about all these conflicting goals? To do this well requires both courage and imagination. Pep talks help, but specific tools and techniques are better.

My goal in this blog is to hit the sweet spot between the arcane mathematical theories of decision science and the fuzzy motivational techniques of the “reach for the stars” variety–simple but powerful techniques to help real people formulate and make real decisions. I hope to hear from you.