How to make the right decisions, for yourself and your company

In 1999, a three-year old girl in London named Isabel received a diagnosis of chicken pox. Overnight she took a turn for the worse and at the hospital was diagnosed with a deadly flesh-eating disease.

Fortunately she recovered, but her stockbroker father, Jason Maude, wanted to develop a way to prevent such misdiagnoses. Together with Dr. Joseph Brito, who had treated his daughter in intensive care, he developed a diagnostic decision-based software tool that would help physicians make more accurate diagnoses.

He called it Isabel.

Mis-Diagnosis Murder

Isabel is not the only tool of its kind, but it does have an interesting feature that Ian Ayres describes in his book, Super Crunchers.

As Ayres writes, “The biggest reason for misdiagnosis is ‘premature closure.’ Doctors think they have a bead on the correct diagnosis…and close their minds to other possibilities.”

That’s exactly what Isabel is designed to prevent. Ayres describes Isabel as a “reminder system” that prompts a simple question, “Have you considered…,” followed by a list of possible diseases to consider for diagnosis.

This feature was designed to helps doctors think beyond what’s known and consider the unknown. But it’s a technique that leaders in any field would be advised to use.

Good leaders also need to think about the unknown in order to plan for the future of their organization. For that reason, you may wish to employ you own “have you considered” questions when making an important decision.

Start the process by asking yourself the following:

What have we missed?One of the greatest dangers facing any team is groupthink, or everyone adopting the same point of view. Sometimes this occurs malevolently; the boss makes it uncomfortable for people to disagree. But it also happens without malice; people all agree on something because it makes sense.

Inviting others (ideally those without bias or exposure to the issue) to examine the decision is good practice. Consumer-products companies regularly show prototypes to customers to gauge their reactions; often their input is completely different from that of anyone on the team.

What if we did the opposite? – Turn the problem upside down. Consider doing the exact opposite of what you have done. That is, if you are about to implement a process, consider not doing it or doing something completely different. Again, getting an outsider’s point of view is worthwhile.

You don’t have to stretch the problem to absurd lengths, but you can invite people to comment on the assumptions you made. Ask them to challenge your data, research, pricing, market or whatever. Yes, it can be tedious and even annoying, but it may reveal something you overlooked.

What happens if we’re wrong? – Projecting the worst-case scenario is not fun; it is daunting and may reveal things about your processes and your people that you may not want to know. Your processes may not be as robust as you think; your people may not possess the skills you think they do.

Better to understand these things now rather than later. This way you can make adjustments and find new sources of talent, maybe just another specialist to round out your team.

Decision making isn’t cut and dried

Keep in mind that if any of these questions provoke controversy, it doesn’t mean the entire decision is wrong. It may simply mean you need to do more research, adjust an assumption or investigate another possibility.

Such rigour may also validate your decision, and that can be very satisfying.

Decision making is not always a cut-and-dried proposition. Dealing with ambiguity is part of every leader’s job.

For example, the go/no go decision on product development may be based on consumer research, but it must always be balanced by experience. Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said, a faster horse.”

Bob Lutz, vice chairman of General Motors and a legendary car guy, argues in his book, Guts, that consumers are not always right; sometimes you have go with your intuition.

The creation of breakthrough products comes from doing something new and different, no more so than in the world of hardware and software development.

For that reason, asking yourself or your team the “have you considered” questions can avoid linear thinking and may even help executives decide what to do next, or not at all.

John Baldoni is a leadership and communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as with nonprofits, including the University of Michigan. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker, and author of seven books on leadership. His latest, Lead By Example: 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results, will be published in October. Visit his leadership resource website at www.johnbaldoni.com.

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