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Some time ago I was talking to a client about some decisions that they were dealing with and the problems they were having.  The situation involved their strategy, who was involved in the discussions and who had decided what, already.

I suggested that the heart of problem was that some people though the decision had been taken, whilst others were still in various stages of making the decision.

However, this statement was met with some puzzled faces.  Naively, I rather assumed they had the understanding I had about the difference between ‘decision-making’ and ‘decision taking’, was one they shared.  Clearly they had not come across it before.  So, I explained the distinction to them and how it illuminated the situation.

Since, then I have realised  that they are not alone. The difference between decision-making and decision taking is a subtle, but important, distinction that not many realise exists.  Either that, or the language, the jargon, is not familiar between them.

Decision making vs Decision taking

In my experience decision making is a process and happens over a period of time.  It is when the decision is constructed and built (made).

A decision is taken at a moment, in an instance.  The decision is taken at the moment the choice is made: the decision is taken from the available options.

So, decision making, precedes decisions being taken.

Decision taking

It is quite easy to spot decisions being taken.  Or rather, attempts to take decisions.  These often occur as votes in a meeting.  They might be a statement from the chairman or leader that says, “Right, this is what I have decided” or “This is what we will do”.

What these appear to be are decisions.

However, and it is a big however.

What has often happened is that the decision-making has been rushed.  Some people are still undecided, unclear or even believe that there is a different decision.  They might still be unsure.  They might not be clear what the actions are that follow the decision, or the consequences of the decision.

The decision has not been made properly.  What do I mean by, “the decision has not been made properly?”

For a complete and properly constructed decision read: “Constructed (made) as a complete decision that people agree with, and will act upon, understanding the consequences”.

So what is decision-making?

Decision making is about how you get to the decision.  It is about making sure you understand the whole decision process.

There is an important fist step, which is Realising that you have to make a decision.  I call this “decision awareness”.

Decision making can include gathering information, creating options, discussing potential actions and their implications “what if?”.

Decision making can involve deciding who needs to make the decision or be involved in the decision-making process.  it includes the consequences of those decisions, either as actions, risks or benefits.

Decision making can involve judgement and/or more detailed analysis and thought.  (See Thinking fast and slow about decision making)

Decision making and decision taking: part of a longer process.

I have been involved in lots of executive decision making and noticed that the most effective teams talk about where they are in the decision making process (how they are deciding) as well as the content of the decision (what they are deciding).  Listening to these conversations and diagnosing where problems are occurring in these processes, has helped us to devise a five step decision process.  This process provides the team with a language to discuss where they are with a decision, individually and collectively.   Read more about the Excitant Six stage decision-making process.

Watching decisions being made, or not.

Now, sad that I am, I quite like the sport of watching decisions being made.  What often happens is that one of the team believe that a decision is correct and effectively makes that decision in their head.  The catch is that others might still be unsure that it is the right thing to do.  They are still making a decision whilst the other has taken it.

In other circumstances, a Chief executive might make a decision but the team not realise he/she is serious.  That Chief Executive had better make sure that they know he/she is serious, otherwise that decision will disappear, further decisions will be eroded and the Chief Executive’s credibility ultimately undermined.

In another situation I watched a team in a Board meeting apparently discussing the risks of a  product they had introduced, but failing to agree anything at the end of the conversation.  They appeared to be making a risk mitigation decision, (“Yes we are happy with this and can live with these risks”, or “We have to do this to mitigate the risks further”) but in they fact took no decision at all. It was as if the decision disappeared out of the window of the room, just as they came close to agreeing what to do.  When I asked whether a decision was made I was surprised to hear the phrase “I did not realise we were here to make a decision.”   Clearly one member of the team though a decision was being made (and actually thought they had made it).  Another was completely unaware that a decision was needed as a consequence of the action.  Presumably they were happy to keep discussing the issue for ever!

What should you do?

Be aware where you are in the decision process when decisions are being discussed.   Are you looking at a decision that is being made, or one that has already been taken?

Be very clear what decisions are required and how you will make them.  The five step process will help you.

Make explicit the conversation about the process of decision-making as well as the content of the decision.  Discussing the process can be as valuable as discussing the content, because it ensure everyone is on the same page and reading it for the right reasons.

Develop a language  amongst your team that helps you track where and how decisions are being made and where individuals are within that process.  This will help you ensure, just like these more effective executive teams, that you are making the right decisions, in the right way.  To do this, the Excitant Six stage decision process is a good place to start.