Some decisions seem to be clear and straightforward, but they turn out to be anything but clear, straightforward, and surprise-free. We may be contemplating a new initiative that will require significant resources and involve many staff members who will be responsible for its success. We may be facing the possibility of cutting a longstanding popular program that appears to have outlived its usefulness and has lost its impact. Our dilemma could be a complex staffing problem that has multiple layers and a long history. Regardless of the specific content of the decision, we need to get it right.
However, collecting the information we need to make a good decision is not always easy. We may ignore an important aspect of the situation that must be addressed for success to be possible. We may not be aware of some political elements that could undermine the result or create significant pushback. Or, we may not have spoken to everyone who could inform our thinking and make us aware of hidden consequences.
Unfortunately, once a decision is made, undoing that decision can be difficult and have serious consequences for trust and confidence in our leadership. We cannot always be perfect, but we need to do all we can to understand and assess our options before making a commitment.
While it may seem obvious, we can learn a lot about what we need to know and consider by asking people and listening closely. However, we don’t always know who and what to ask. Whether in formal interviews, focus groups, or informal conversations, we need to be careful not to confine our questions to confirming what we already intend to do. In fact, doing so can undermine our credibility and leave people feeling manipulated.
We need to go beyond what we know and assume and instead seek out information from individuals who can tell us what else we need to know. We need to listen, even if in the end we decide not to go in the direction they would prefer. Here are five questions to guide our quest to be fully informed before making an important decision:
First, what did I not ask you that you think I should? When we ask this question, we invite people to share their insights and experiences beyond what we may have considered. They can help us uncover potential blind spots and surface nuance that we may have overlooked.
Second, what additional information should I collect and consider? This question invites others to tell us what else we need to learn that may play a role in our decision making. We are inviting them to tell us what we may be missing.
Third, who else should I speak with before deciding? If the issue we are considering has a deep or complex history, there may be more people—including retirees and other past employees—who have information that can help us understand politics, provide perspective, and prevent unanticipated pushback.
Fourth, what aspect of this situation should be given greatest weight in a decision? Responses to this question can give us access to priorities and potential emotional connections that we might otherwise miss. We may not ultimately agree with the weight suggested in response, but the information can inform our thinking.
Fifth, what other steps do you think should be taken before a decision is made? This question can help us determine if we have done all that we need to do before making and communicating our decision. If there is a need for additional steps, we can take them before deciding and avoid explaining why we did not “touch every base” in the decision-making process. Information we receive may also help guide our crafting of the messages that will accompany a decision.
Of course, we may never achieve consensus on the decisions we need to make. In fact, the correct decision may be one that enjoys the least consensus. However, by asking these questions, listening carefully, and following up on what is most important and actionable, we can be confident that we availed ourselves of the best information available, considered an array of credible options, and made an informed choice.