Every day we all make hundreds of decisions without a second thought, yet at work we fall prey to bouts of indecision. Winston Fletcher offers some practical advice.
'If I had to sum up in one word the qualities that make a good manager, I'd say it all comes down to decisiveness. You can use the fanciest computers in the world and gather all the charts and numbers but, in the end, you have to bring all your information together, set up a timetable, and act.'
Whenever I find myself dithering about an important decision, those words of Lee Iaccoca - the American tycoon who picked Chrysler up by the scruff of its neck when it was on its uppers, and turned it into one of the world's most successful automobile companies - ring accusingly in my ears.
Self-help for ditherers
Implicit in Iaccoca's words is the recognition that most managers tend to be indecisive. Every day we all make hundreds of decision with hardly a thought. We decide what to have for breakfast, what to wear, which bits of the newspaper to read and which to ignore. Yet most of us feel guiltily indecisive at work, much of the time. In our hearts, we alone know what terrible procrastinators we are.
Can you improve yourself? You bet. First and foremost, in any situation, you must determine your objectives. The ends will almost always justify the means - but you must be absolutely clear about the ends you're aiming for. Are you willing to let your personal life suffer, or do you want to keep work and home life in balance? Are you keen to be popular or don't you give a stuff? Are you willing to be ruthless in pursuit of your ambitions or do you find ruthless behaviour unethical? The more guidelines you can lay down for yourself, the faster you will decide which activities will help you achieve your goals and which won't. If you constantly hum and haw about where you are going, you'll never decide how to get there.
On any project, one of the immediate analyses you need to make is: does it need to be perfect or does it need to be fast? As in cooking, excellence often takes time - time that may not be available. Is it to be McDonalds, or Marco Pierre White? Both have their place. There is never any excuse for shoddiness, but there is often a trade off between speed and perfection. Find out what's needed before you start or you'll end up falling out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Next, evaluate the downside. What is the worst that can happen if things go pear-shaped? When you're making a decision, carefully analyse the consequences of everything coming utterly unstuck. The downside will rarely be quite as disastrous as it first appears.
Then, don't delay - but don't rush. If you have a little time in hand, take it: you'll find the decision keeps resurfacing in your mind, helping you to re-examine all the angles. Many of the most senior and successful business managers I have met view themselves as rather cautious decision-makers. They're not, of course. Their skill is to act as quickly as the circumstances dictate, while taking as much time as the circumstances allow. 'More haste less speed' is as true in business as in life generally.
A couple more tips. If you are hesitating, ask yourself how somebody you admire would tackle the problem: the head of the company, perhaps, or a previous boss you really rated. Put them in your shoes and see what they would do. It will force you to look at the problem from a different standpoint. Similarly, don't be too proud to ask for advice. Phrase your enquiry properly and it won't make you look stupid, it will make you look smart. Whereas you will indubitably look a right idiot if you make the wrong decision when your colleagues knew the right one all along. The propensity of managers to re-invent wheels is prodigious. Don't do it.
Probably the best single decision-making aid ever devised was invented by the great American wit, thinker and businessman Benjamin Franklin over 200 years ago. Franklin had made enough by the age of 42 to retire, which was probably even more difficult then than now. And he did it with the help of his 'pros and cons' lists. He analysed every decision into its pros and cons and wrote down the two lists, facing each other, on a single sheet of paper. (Today you can do it on a computer, but it's one of the few pieces of analysis I still find faster by old-fashioned pencil and paper). The pros and cons must each be boiled down to a few words - the act of compression makes you think hard about them. And it's essential they are written down (or typed). If you try to carry them in your head, you'll get yourself into an unholy, confused, and thoroughly indecisive mess. But if you make out Ben Franklin's pros and cons lists properly, they will always help you to speedy, but considered, decisions.
Dig deep into your pocket
Another system I've used and like I stole from Bob Jacoby.
Bob Jacoby was the dynamic supremo of the Ted Bates advertising agency for many years, and is credited with having made more money out of advertising than any other individual in history - over $100 million. (He then retired, too.) Jacoby jotted down decisions that were nagging at his mind on small pieces of paper. He put the pieces in his jacket pocket, together with other bits of paper with other difficult decisions. Whenever he had a spare moment, he would pull one of the pieces of paper from his pocket at random, and concentrate on it for a few minutes. It might not work for everyone, but it worked for him, and it has worked for me - though I still prefer Franklin's pros and cons lists.
There I go again: indecisive even about the best way to become more decisive.
That must be why I'm never going to be head honcho at Chrysler. But maybe you could. Stop procrastinating and get on with it.l
Winston Fletcher is chairman of advertising group Bozell UK and a visiting professor at Lancaster University.