Developing Decisiveness

Exec in boardroom

A big part of being a leader—at any scale—is making decisions. Whether that’s an executive deciding to invest in one area over another, a product owner choosing to prioritize a particular feature, a ScrumMaster making a call on how to facilitate a retrospective, or a senior developer making a key technology choice, decisiveness is an essential leadership competency.

Why is being decisive so hard, and how can you develop that capability?

Why being decisive is hard

Fear of being wrong

In our increasingly complex world, there’s rarely enough information to make a decision with 100% confidence. There’s always uncertainty. There’s always more data you could collect.

A fear of being wrong—or, more precisely, a desire to only choose decisions that are guaranteed to be right—is a recipe for paralysis.

Overvaluing optionality

In incremental product development, we recognize that options have value. We’re going to know more in the future, so it’s helpful to be able to have room to incorporate that new knowledge into our decisions.

But it’s possible to overvalue optionality. Every decision necessarily removes some options. Not all options are equally valuable. And options expire. Valuing optionality for its own sake can prevent you from making a decision.

Fear of upsetting others

Often, a leader finds themself in a position where deciding X will upset some people, while deciding Y will upset others. There’s no way to keep everyone happy. And if keeping everyone happy feels essential to your sense of self—”I’m only a good person if I can keep the people I care about happy”—it can feel easier to not make a decision at all.

Desire to be inclusive

A human-centric approach to work suggests that people should have a meaningful say in decisions that affect them. Not only because of democratic cultural values, but also because they have experience and information that can lead to better decisions.

But most leaders find themselves trapped in a false dichotomy when it comes to including others in decision-making: either “I decide” or “we all decide together.”

“I decide” feels autocratic, so the consensus approach, “we all decide together,” tends to win out. Unfortunately, the consensus approach is slow and tends towards endless meetings and overly cautious decisions. After all, everyone gets veto power, so the most risk-averse voice wins.

A better approach for most situations is having someone own a decision but make it with advice from others. This is fully compatible with the Lean and Agile principle of pushing decisions as close to the work as possible. But instead of always making it a whole-team decision, make a habit as a team of empowering someone to make the final call and then giving them the advice they need to consider to make the best decision.

Developing decisiveness

Want to develop decisiveness in your leadership? Identify the impediment and practice its antidote.

Reflect on times when you weren’t as a decisive as you’d like to be. What was the worry that kept you from making a call?

Fear of being wrong? Practice designing safe-to-fail experiments to move forward while learning more.

Overvaluing optionality? Start adding expiration dates to your options. Look for ways to make decisions reversible so you can move forward without cutting off other options you value.

Fear of upsetting others? Pay attention to how a desire to please others may be shaping your sense of self. Reflect on what you value enough to be worth upsetting someone. Now, start noticing where a need to make a decision connects to those things you value, and you’ll find yourself beginning to be pulled into decisiveness by your values rather than staying stuck in indecision by fear of upsetting others.

A desire to be inclusive leaving you stuck? Look for places to move from “we all decide together” to “someone specific decides with all of our advice.” Building a habit of using advice rather than consensus can maintain the benefits of including diverse input without the slowness and stasis of consensus.

Finally, as you work to develop decisiveness, start noticing when you get the “I’m glad someone made a call” reaction. That’s a sign you’re moving in the right direction, making decisions in service of the group and your shared purpose.

Learn More

Interested in going deeper with the essential skills for leading a more human-centric, high-impact org? Humanizing Work will be launching a new cohort-style leadership program to help leaders understand what they should focus on in this kind of org (and what they shouldn’t do); as well as the personal leadership development required to lead in today’s complex business landscape. Through a blend of live, interactive sessions, group coaching, and practical application, participants will be immersed in a powerful learning experience to elevate their leadership effectiveness. Complete a short application to express your interest in the program and learn more.

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