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The Business World Wants You to Make a Decision

Being a paramedic during the formative years of my working life, I’ve been surprised at how many of the lessons that I learned on the job have translated to the business world.

The world of medicine, especially EMS, is one of ambiguity, intuition, and making decisions based on incomplete and ambiguous information. In my own career I had to make judgment calls in order to decide on what treatment path to take, what medicine to give, what intervention to use (or not).

Often for me and my peers, it was as much the ability to make a decision and act, or withhold a treatment because of that decision, that made the difference.

In the most challenging of cases – a cardiac arrest – decisions are made quickly with corresponding treatments given just as rapidly. Interpretations have to be made on the spot in an environment of stress and noise and other things not shown on TV that add to the confusion.

When I think about the first patient in arrest I ran by myself, I still get goosebumps. It was one of the most challenging runs I ever did, pushing my skills to their absolute limit. We ended up practicing nearly every skill that we had been taught in our attempt to keep up with the patient’s heart as it fluctuated wildly between patterns and arrhythmias. Decision after decision was made, reacted to, learned from, and discarded as we worked in the back of that racing ambulance.

Despite the chaos noise and adrenaline there was one singular focus: saving that patient.

In business, our focus is different, but decisions must be made, sometimes with what feels like the same pace and similar urgency. However, many people are reluctant to make decisions and act on them, and get stuck in a position of wanting perfect information to make a perfect decision each time. We all know that such perfect information is never available, and if perfect decisions were possible, we wouldn’t be needed. It’s our ability to intuit, to use our experience and see across the gaps to make good decisions most of the time that make us excellent leaders.

Businesses waste millions of dollars every year on analytics that still don’t lead to decision making.[1] Sometimes we have too much data available, and we dump it all into what Jim March calls the “garbage can,” where it’s all mixed together and people just agree to the solution that first appears.[2] Having all that data available and mixed together means that the wrong data is arbitrarily applied to the next problem, and the decision isn’t really a good one at all.

Another thing to consider is that, unlike medicine, there are rarely “right” decisions and “wrong” ones when looking at business.[3] Ethics and morality being the obvious exceptions, most of the decisions we make are along a spectrum where there is some good that results, and some negativity that follows as well, assuming we can even find the right measures to determine each side.

At the other end of the spectrum is the uninformed knee-jerk decision, which is particularly ineffective when followed up with “this is the decision we’ve made and we’re sticking with it.” Before making these types of decisions, the first question should be “why is this an emergency?” Rarely is any decision we make life-or-death, literally or figuratively.

How many of these emergency decisions can really take a day to have context developed, information gathered, and long-term consequences considered?

As business leaders, we must create an environment in which decision-making is supported and safe for those to whom we delegate those decisions. By ensuring that all decision makers, including ourselves, understand that decisions need to be made in the right time, with the right information, in the right context, and will never have all of anything that we want, we will allow for the best environment possible. As leaders, we have the ability to look at a situation and evaluate not just the urgency and long-term effects of a decision but can also consider and communicate the costs of inaction – failing to make a decision can be worse than making a bad one.

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