Following a process helps you improve the quality of your decisions. Too often we let thoughts bang around in our heads and never apply a process to structure our thinking.
I created the acronym DO IT (Define Observe Imagine Test) to help me remember the steps. With a little practice, applying this process becomes automatic and you can use it daily for different type of decisions.
Not all decisions are important enough to require all four steps, but I recommend engaging in at least the first two steps for most decisions. Use no more steps or complexity than needed. Calibrate your time investment to the importance of the decision and how urgently it needs to be made. An effective process requires thinking deeply and writing down answers to each step.
Consider these four steps when you are in the process of making a decision.
Step 1. Define
Define the problem or opportunity. Recognize the type of decision you are facing. You may think you do this now, but I bet you don’t. Following your fuzzy intuition without consciously thinking about the nature of the decision does not count. Write down the problem or opportunity using clear and precise language. Clarify the importance. What’s the magnitude? Is it reversible? How much time do you have to make the decision? Do other people need to be involved? Who are they? If you are the only decision-maker, then it’s easier, but multiple parties may need to be involved for a complex decision.
In addition to defining the problem, you also need to define who is responsible for the outcome. Every decision needs an owner who is held accountable and bears the consequences (good or bad) of the decision. No two people are alike in their knowledge, values, and experience. Therefore it makes sense to have different levels and kinds of decision rights. Decision rights should not be based on the rank of the person in the company hierarchy but should be given to the person closest to the problem who demonstrates good judgment and a comparable advantage to make the decision.
This first process step can be accomplished in a few minutes of focused thinking, but you must slow down enough to determine what you are facing before you move on. The time invested in this step depends on the complexity of the decision. Straightforward decisions may take only a few minutes while more important and more complicated decisions will require more time.
Step 2. Observe
After you’ve clearly defined the problem or opportunity, pause again and consider this question: Why do you need or want to solve this problem? Is making a decision about this issue the most important thing you can do now? What are your motivations? How does this decision or opportunity map to your goals? Make sure you are solving the right problem. Before you start digging in to seek solutions, ask yourself, “Am I focused on the right problem? Is this problem even worth solving?” Your time and attention are valuable, and you could be working on many problems.
To determine if this problem deserves your attention now, quickly review your list of priorities. Pausing and asking why forces you to prioritize your time before you blindly stumble into action. This only takes a few moments, but we rarely do it. Practice this process after you complete each task during the day and are preparing to move to the next item on your to-do list.
When you determine a problem is worth your time investment, start breaking down the problem into smaller pieces. Tease it apart. We frequently do not recognize exactly what problem we are trying to solve until we dig deeper. Breaking a complex problem down to its foundation and generating original solutions is a way of thinking from “first principles.” Write down your assumptions, then ask “why?” and keep asking “why” until you have exhausted your ability to answer. There you will find the root cause of your problem.
Step 3. Imagine
Engage in mental time travel and create multiple scenarios of the future. Scenario analysis helps you evaluate your choices. Don’t be lazy. Invest the time and energy to think through and evaluate your options. Before you write a line of code or change a single piece of hardware, make sure you have probed and punctured your best ideas from every angle. Nothing saves time and money more effectively than a well-run evaluation process to vet scenarios. Not every decision needs scenario analysis, but all important decisions do.
Step 4. Test
Test your ideas by getting feedback from customers, partners, or other appropriate stakeholders. Try to disprove each scenario. Without feedback, we are blind and stupid, and we will make the same mistakes repeatedly. Feedback helps you better see the reality of the world and allows you to correct mistakes and learn faster. Feedback provides an opportunity to gain empathy by seeing different perspectives, and it shines a bright light on your blind spots, which can improve your decision-making ability.
Direct, honest feedback is hard to find because very few people are willing to tell you the truth. Most people want to avoid conflict and are reluctant to jeopardize relationships. Thus, you will need to actively seek feedback from people with diverse perspectives and experience. Seek out people who have truly different skills, experiences, and worldviews to expose your blind spots. Challenge yourself to accept feedback from someone you dislike. I admit this is hard to do, but we can learn from everyone.
Make the decision
After you engage in the four DO IT steps, then do it—make the decision. For important decisions, think slowly. Be less impulsive and more deliberate. Your first reaction is usually not the best one. Take time for careful and considered reasoning. Take a break. Set aside time to review and think about scenarios. Grapple with tradeoffs, uncertainties, and risk. Sleep on it to allow your mind to consider your options. Your subconscious mind does more thinking than you realize. Frequently, a better solution will occur to you the next morning.
Don’t let thoughts bang around in your head. Apply the DO IT steps to structure your thinking and improve the quality of your decisions.