January 25th, 2011

Improve Your Decision-Making Skills


As an academic leader, each decision you make has the potential to have a lasting impact within your unit and beyond. Competing viewpoints, priorities and strong personalities contribute to the difficulty many leaders have with making decisions.

Kent Crookston, PhD, who has served as an academic administrator for 20 years, shared his thoughts with Academic Leader on how to become a better, more confident decision maker.

Q: How open should a leader be about decisions he or she makes individually?
Crookston: This has to be considered on a case-by-case basis; some decisions with individuals must remain confidential. In principle, however, decisions should be as transparent as possible. It is important to consider whether there are others who will be impacted by the decision, and if so their input should usually be sought.

It is wise for academic leaders to consult with their superior on any sensitive decisions, and also to involve legal counsel and human resources whenever in doubt. If a decision leads into uncharted territory, one must consider whether a precedent will be inferred and what the impact of that will be.

A key is to have in place policies and procedures upon which individual decisions will be made so that favoritism, partiality, discrimination, prejudice, etc. are minimized.

Q: What process do you recommend for making good collective decisions?
Crookston: There’s not a quick answer, nor is it a quick process. Depending on the importance of the decision, it may be necessary to spend months. It is usually helpful to discuss and agree at the outset how the decision will be made, especially who will make it. Equally important is the clarification of a handful of values and priorities of the unit (three to five) that must be honored by the decision. Input should be solicited from all stakeholders and should be processed and resubmitted for input, perhaps several times.

Procedures are available for assuring that the selected option will be best for the unit, not for just one individual or faction. If you are the decision maker, your own humility is essential. One way to maximize groupwide benefit is to assemble the group once the most viable options have been identified. Begin by limiting the discussion to only the pros of option A. The group is thus unified in its dialogue, which continues until all option A pros and related discussion are exhausted. The group can then move to the pros of option B, then to the cons of A, the cons of B, etc.

The facilitator ([who] should not be the decision maker) needs to watch body language and engage those who withdraw or shut down. Before settling on an option, it may be desirable to break the group up so that individuals can retreat to solitude and reflect on what has been said–away from overbearing or charismatic personalities. Then, when they’re ready, participants can submit their thoughtful individual input.

AL: How do you minimize second-guessing of decisions? How much second-guessing is too much?
Crookston: Yogi Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” I heard Norman Schwarzkopf say that there are only two things you need to know about leadership: “First, when placed in command, take charge. Second, do the right thing.” In light of these two quotes, we might ask: Which is the right thing? Or which is the right fork to take? Schwarzkopf continued his two statements by pointing out that any unit worth leading will contain people who will tell you when you’re making a mistake. Listen to them, and make corrections as necessary.

Yogi Berra apparently also said that once you’ve traveled down a selected fork you will be able to see around the bend, and if it’s all wrong you can usually turn back and go the other way. The key is to not stall in a state of indecision, and [to] be watchful and willing to self-correct. If your three to five values are clear, you will be able to make adjustments that zero in on them. Pilots say their airplane is off course 99 percent of the time, but by making continual adjustments they arrive at their destination spot on.

AL: What can a leader learn from a bad decision?
Crookston: In his 2008 book, The Truth About Making Smart Decisions, Robert Gunther writes: “To make better decisions, make more mistakes.” He says that one good mistake can teach us more than all the successful decisions combined, and tells us to allow others to make mistakes as well. My son’s second-grade teacher would stop the class when one of the students made a mistake, and together they would all see what they could learn from the mistake of that one student. One day our son came home and excitedly said, “Mom, guess what. I made two mistakes today.” He then told her what the class had all learned from them. Gunther also advises us to learn from our close calls.

For more on decision-making, see Three Keys to Effective Decision-making for Academic Leaders, a seminar presented by Crookston in March 2010. Learn more »