Decisions, Decisions

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Thirty years ago, Jerry Harvey, a professor at George Washington University told a true story about an incident that occurred when he and his wife visited his in-laws in Texas one summer. On a scorching August afternoon, they were enjoying a game of dominoes and cold lemonade on a shady porch when Professor Harvey’s father-in-law suggested that they drive to Abilene and have lunch in the cafeteria. Harvey later explained that he thought it was a crazy idea, but he didn’t want to spoil everyone’s fun, especially since his wife and mother-in-law wanted to go. The four of them climbed in an un-air-conditioned Buick and drove 53 miles to Abilene, with temperatures soaring to 104 degrees. After arriving at the cafeteria, they ate a mediocre lunch before heading home. Exhausted, hot and unhappy with the experience, they gratefully crawled into the chairs that dotted the porch.

Only after they returned home did they discover that none of them had actually wanted to go to Abilene. Harvey’s father-in-law was just making conversation, certain that no one would take him up on his offer. None of the others wanted to drive that far on dusty roads, but not one of them offered an objection. They each assumed that the others wanted to make the trip.

Does anything about that story sound familiar? Do decisions sometimes get made in your office (or at home) because you make assumptions about what you think other people want?

What kind of a decision maker are you? Have you taken corporate rabbit trails to Abilene? When you’re sitting in a meeting, do you fail to communicate your desires, your ideas, your beliefs? Do you make assumptions about what you think others want?

Here are 5 tips for developing your decision making skills:

  • Gather as much information as you can. Too often we make decisions based on incomplete information. Take the time to really understand the problem or opportunity and be comfortable choosing from your options, or consider waiting.

  • Know yourself. Are you the type of person who focuses primarily on the task at hand, or is your focus on the people involved? If you know yourself, you can pull in people with strong points where you are weak.

  • Find out other people’s opinions. . Professor Harvey’s father-in-law could have been more direct by telling the group what he was thinking. He could also have checked what everyone else thought about the idea.

  • Question assumptions. Question your own assumptions as well as those of others. Ask yourself what assumptions you’re making about others in the group.

  • Learn from your mistakes. Don’t let past mistakes prevent you from being actively involved in making new decisions. Use your mistakes to help you learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of the decision you’re facing.

    In Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, he describes a protocol for making decisions mindfully.

    1) Pay attention to your intentions. Ask yourself, “What do I want to happen?"

    2) Balance advocacy with inquiry. Listen to each other’s positions as well as share your own ideas.

    3) Build shared meanings of words. Words have different meanings for people. Check the meanings with one another so you don’t walk away with ambiguous understandings of who meant what and who will do what.

    4) Use self-awareness as a resource. Ask yourself, “What am I thinking? What am I feeling? What do I want at this moment?"

    5) Explore impasses. Ask, “What do we agree on and what do we disagree on?" Pinpoint the source of the disagreement.

    I hope these ideas will be helpful enough that you won’t take a metaphorical trip to corporate Abilene, but will instead make success your final destination.

    © 2005 Julane Borth

    Julane Borth is co-founder of EWF International®, provider of peer advisory groups for women business owners and executives.

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