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The Need for Urgent Decision-Making with Limited Information

The Need for Urgent Decision-Making with Limited Information
Another challenging aspect of the crisis environment is how the urgent need for decision making is hindered by the limited availability of information. During a crisis, high-stakes leaders are going to have to make decisions. Decisions about whether or not they’re actually in a crisis. It’s not actually always that perfectly clear. Decisions about whether or not to call the crisis team into action. Are things bad enough to sound the alarm? Decisions about how to deploy limited resources, how to interpret limited data, how to decide on option A, or option B when either could be right or wrong. Decisions about whether or not it’s time to make a decision or if you should wait for more and better information.
Decision making during a crisis is hard. It takes character, competence, experience, courage, and perhaps most importantly an understanding that while many of your decisions will be right, many will be wrong. This is a difficult reality for decision-makers in a crisis. Peter Drucker, often called the father of modern management famously said, “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.” His point was a leader was forced to make a difficult decision with limited information and had the courage to make it, rather than waiting for a perfectly clear picture by which time someone else might have seized the opportunity.
With high-stakes leadership, decision making is not about seizing opportunity per se, but it’s very much about having the courage to make decisions with limited information in the best interests of everyone involved. Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball and several other bestselling books, had the opportunity to interview then President Barack Obama while he was still in office. One line of questioning had to do with the challenges of making decisions with limited information. When asked about this, Obama responded, “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable. Otherwise, someone else would have solved it.”
He went on to say from his experience, “Any given decision you make, you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you went about making the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work.” Obama’s point was not that there was actually a 30 to 40 percent chance that a leader making decisions in a complex environment was going to be wrong. His point was that high-stakes leaders are going to have to make decisions in situations where there may never be enough information, enough clarity of the situation, to know exactly how to be right.
This is the nature of the crisis environment. The information not only won’t come as fast as you’ll want it to come, but sometimes it won’t reveal itself at all. Regardless, crisis leaders will be charged with making decisions. We use the term VUCA to describe today’s business environment. But it originated as a way for US army senior leadership to describe the challenges of decision making on the 21st-century battlefield. They paint a very accurate picture of the challenges that face a high-stakes leader during a crisis. The dynamics of crisis situations are volatile and every decision could have dire consequences. Yet decisions are necessary and they must be made. A good one could make things much better.
A bad one could make things much worse. But not making a decision is much more likely to move the process, the team, the crisis situation backwards more than forward. We’re almost always uncertain to some degree about what we do know, what we could know, and what we wish we knew to inform our decisions. Leaders must develop the instincts to understand when they know enough to make difficult choices. The environment is typically incredibly complex and confounding, and it can be very difficult to see how pieces of the puzzle fit together to clearly identify cause and effect relationships, to know enough about a complex set of options and how they might best be deployed into a complex set of circumstances.
There will always be a sense of ambiguity in the situation. It will rarely be clear how individual decisions will produce both intended and unintended consequences. This is the environment of a high-stakes leader during a crisis. It won’t ever be comfortable. You won’t ever be as confident in your decisions as you’d want to be. But decisions will have to be made. In the end, whether they prove to be right or prove to be wrong, it’s always better to have made them than to not have made them. For many reasons that we’ll cover in this course, high-stakes leaders must be assertive and decisive. There are simply no better alternatives.
Because most of these decisions will have to be made with limited information, they will be some of the most difficult you will ever have to make. Getty Lee, the lead singer of Canadian rock band Rush, once offered in a song titled Freewill. “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” I would say that while I very much like the song and understand the point that he’s trying to make, high-stakes leaders won’t serve the interests of their stakeholders by not making choices. They will be hard. They won’t always be right, but they will have to be made. Over time as you gain experience, your decision making skills will improve.
This won’t resolve the issue of having to make decisions with limited information, but you’ll find that your ability to make sense of what you do have and determine the best options to pursue under the circumstances will improve dramatically
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High Stakes Leadership: Leading in Times of Crisis

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