Articles: Blog

Decision Making and Decision Taking: Why do we not notice the difference

In some of my other blog posts I make a clear distinction between decision making and decision taking.

  • When we make a decision we (literally) construct that decision: decision making is decision construction.
  • When we take a decision we commit to action: decision taking is decision commitment.

You can read about the difference in my six frogs post and the wider six-step decision process.

The thing that surprises me, is how, in common business language, most people make no distinction whatsoever between decision making and decision taking.

Noting the distinction in language, and in meaning

When I first explored this topic with people I would ask them the simple question,

“What is the difference between decision making and decision taking?”

The usual answer was that there was none.  They were synonyms.  They meant the same thing.  There was no difference.

Yet, as soon as I suggested that there was a difference in taking and making (making being construction) and taking (meaning to grab hold of and walk away having committed to something), they immediately agreed that there was a distinction.  As I talked more about this as a decision process, they agreed they saw examples of where decision were made (built discussed)  – but not taken (or committed to).  There was now, in their minds, a very clear difference.

It puzzled me why this distinction in language and meaning is commonly missed.  I have two theories about this distinction between decision making and decision taking.

Theory 1: It is a problem of business English and jargon

The first theory I have is that the problem of a lack of distinction comes from an inherent laziness in much business language.  I see situations where people use different words but fail to make a distinction between them.  There are plenty of these.  A common example is using measures and indicators as synonyms. Another is defining a strategy as a plan.  In both cases these seem innately wrong to me for a very simple reason: they are two different words, and in English if we have two different words they have two different uses and meaning.    So an indicator is not a measure.  A strategy is not simply a plan.  Decision making (literally construction) is not the same as decision taking (committing to by picking up and taking away).

But that is a superficial answer.  It only leads us to a definition, not a underlying reason, for the problem.

The deeper reason is to do with how the decision is made

The deeper reason, I believe, is due to the nature of decision making in business and organisations.  In our businesses and organisation we are making decisions in teams, not simply as individuals.

As an individual, the decision can be made (thought about and explored).  Then the taking, and the acting upon, often happen in one moment (as when the frog finally jumps).  Commitment and action are merged into one.  As individuals we show our commitment through our action.  We think about a decision to buy a car.  We commit when we walk through the dealer’s door with the money and sign the paper.  The decision is not really, truly, committed to, until the action takes place.

Team decision commitment, is different to individual decision commitment

Team decision taking is different. In a team, the team has to commit, and then act, as a whole.  This has two effects.

One, it is about a whole team agreeing to commit.  Secondly, and as a consequence, with a team, commitment and action are separated in time.

The decision is discussed (for the moment let us call that the decision making stage).  Then, at some point the decision is committed to.  This is often seen as a vote or someone saying, “Right, this is what we are going to do! – does everyone agree?”.

The action only happens after people have left that room and individually, and collectively, they start the actions that put that decision into motion.  This usually means that several people are doing things, in parallel, that initiates the action in a consistent and coherent manner, and as agreed.

Team decisions that are taken  – can be untaken

The catch is that a commitment made in a meeting can be undone through a lack of action.   I am sure you have had experience of a team that appears to make and take a decision, but the next meeting you find that some people in that team did not do what was expected of them.  They appeared to commit to the decision but they took no action.

What you may see is that decision that you thought had been taken and committed to, as a team, gets unmade.  Sometimes this is called unpicking a decision. (Think unpicking a knitted jumper).   It is the same thing.  Someone comes back and questions a part of a premise on which the decision was taken.  The decision is being clarified, questioned, or even undermined (depending upon how severe and fundamental the questioning is).  No matter what the level of questioning, the expected action is delayed.  The decision is not implemented, in whole or in part.

There is a more fundamentally dangerous version of this, referred to as “Malicious compliance”, but that is a different matter.

Quality of decision making leads to quality of commitment and action

What this means is that a team should put a greater emphasis on the quality of conversation, the quality of thinking, the evidence, the thinking through a decision, in the making stage, BEFORE there is a request for commitment.    The better the quality of thinking and conversation in the decision making stage, the easier it is to get commitment and the better the quality of action.

One aspect of this is to surface disagreements early.  In fact Peter Drucker suggests that if a decision looks like coming to quick consensus, it suggests it has not been properly thought through.  In which case you should postpone the commitment and ask for dissent.

It also means that the team should look learning from decisions in two distinct ways:

  1. The content of the decision: What that an effective decision and was it the right one
  2. The process of the decision: was the process we followed, how we made, took and acted on that decision, effective?

Our experience is that management teams are often very good at looking at the content of a decision, but more reluctant to learn from the process by which that decision was made, taken and acted out.  Learning from both the content and the process of a decision, is a fundamental part of the Excitant six-step decision process.

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