Here are some scenarios about making big decisions.
A swimming pool.
Marika goes to the swimming pool at lunch and swims for an hour. When she returns, her assistant comes into the office and they clear all the day’s key communications in 30 minutes.
A long flight.
Anton sits with earphones and a mineral water for 4.5 hours. Enters the meeting an hour after landing. The transaction is agreed within 15 minutes.
An empty church.
Bjorn is an atheist but sits in the back pews in an empty church. He returns and delivers the speech that changes the culture of the organisation in an hour.
Each of these executives were running radically different organisations, but these were their answers to the question ‘how do you make tough decisions?’ They had a ritual for thinking the long thought their decision demanded. This is how they made their toughest decisions fast. Decisions about people, big transactions, tough negotiations, risk and life. Decisions with consequences stretching out years.
Fast, not quick.
This kind of work doesn’t look ‘quick’ in today’s terms. They are not swift, off-the-cuff decisions made in minutes. They are not like the eight-second decision to leave a web page. These decisions need time in a special way. They need long, single, complex thoughts. They even need something bigger than ‘thinking’ – they need deep reflection, down in that part of our minds where complexity develops into patterns before becoming a thought.
Fast means as fast as a complex decision can be made, not ‘quick’ and ineffectual.
In each case, the person also had a great reputation for being ‘decisive’. They made lots of decisions quickly and effectively day to day. The two are linked. The quick daily small decisions are easier, when the big ones have been sorted out.
Don’t lose faith.
When each of these clients stopped ‘doing nothing’ in this productive way, things slipped. They lost faith in themselves. They became self-conscious about looking lazy or indulgent. They tried to look busy and make decisions quickly, because that’s what people around them seemed to value. But without the big decision-making routine, the small decisions became overwhelming. They had the bewildering experience of looking incompetent at simple tasks.
It’s hard not to lose faith in your own process, when you get actual or perceived criticism that you’re just slinking off doing nothing, or not making the best use of the flight time to ‘do things on the to do list’. It feels easier to give up your private process and instead put in more face time. Ironically when you’re in a position of power you can feel more powerless to control this. You’re being watched.
When you stop your personal big-decision process, the symptoms are subtle. A drop in your mood that you can’t quite name. Meetings that over time become less interesting and productive. Followers who seem to be less enthusiastic.
It’s harder to notice these subtle effects of absence than to notice the impact of a new circumstance.
Avoid the crash
The deeper symptoms of this absence can be terrible. One bad big decision, made in a rush, can derail your career. Giving priority to the many small demands on your time and delaying an important decision can alienate your stakeholders and key supporters.
So it’s important to respect your personal approach to making big decisions. What is your process? Although it may look like emptiness and silence, you can analyse it like any process. There are steps, a helpful environment, useful tools, small acts that help you stay on the task.
Perhaps there’s a particular style of music that helps. I discovered the ’Chill’ genre and love it because my favourite classical music grabs my attention too much. Do you have a special notebook for recording the key points of your thinking? Is there a location that works for you such a rock on a beach with the perfect view? For me there’s a bench that overlooks a yacht club and the whole bay with the city – and sometimes the sunset – in the distance. I can’t really afford to hop on a plane just to think, though I like international travel!
Respect your process
Perhaps your process looks a lot like meditation. Certainly formal meditation helps with big decisions, but what we are talking about here is a steady continuous focus – for several hours straight – on a work issue where you and you alone need to come to a conclusion. Each of these clients had lost trust in their process and stopped doing it. Yet only in talking with me, could they connect this with their difficulties in work.
Here are some more things my professional friends do when they are making big decisions.
- Train for 100km charity walks.
- Design and sew their own couture garments.
- Cultivate a prize winning garden.
- Perform in professional flamenco shows.
- Campaign ocean racing yachts.
- Manage car racing events.
- Spend one full day a week in their painting studio.
Do you bush walk, swim, sail, play piano, paint, dance, knit, sew, make furniture, nurture a garden? (I know highly successful people who do each of these things).
There are a few keys to making this work.
- Respect it as a process. It is at least as important and sophisticated as any meeting protocol.
- Describe it using positive rather than negative language – to yourself!
- Ritualise it. Notice the little touches that help you; make it easy to repeat them.
- Set yourself up for success. Identify the decision, seek patterns, put your emotions to good use (eg in a message of empathy for those who suffer from the decision).
- Get support. Have at least one person who helps you protect the time and the place where you do this thinking.
- Enjoy it. This is your particular genius at work.
- Celebrate it. This is you in your full capability tackling the biggest issues. It’s a process of success.
I love to see talented professionals thrive in the right role. I get a kick out of some of the paradoxes that make this happen, such as the ritual process that enables them to make big decisions fast. Everyone benefits, but each of these clients also uncovered deeper meaning. And this led to sustained excellence in a role that they love.
That’s worth striving for!