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The Decision Improvement Zone: An Executive Guide to better Decision making


The most persistent issue amongst executives is how to improve decision making, decision taking and learning from decisions.  We provide a decision making model that helps teams talk about decisions and unpack their decision making process.

What we typically hear from clients (the presenting problems)

  • Problems with decisions
    • We take decisions, but execution seems slow and unwieldy.
    • We see decisions not being taken
    • We think we leave the room all telling the same story, but are not
    • We see decisions being untaken and undone
  • Building empowerment and consensus in decisions
    • We want to empower our people to take decisions well.
    • We want our people to learn and improve their decision making.
    • We like to build consensus around decisions  – the challenge is speed vs quality and engagement
  • Using data and evidence in decisions
    • We have loads of data – the problem is making sense of it.
    • We need space for judgement and experience as well as evidence-based decision making:  How do we improve both?
  • Learning as an organisation
    • We do not seem to learn as an organisation.
    • We need to learn quicker from the decisions we have made
    • We see our ability to learn from decisions quickly, as a potential competitive edge.

Decision making and taking: In this section we cover

  1. A bit of background to why we put so much emphasis on decision making in our approach
  2. Taking apart the decision process: Making, and taking and acting
  3. The Excitant Six Step Decision process
  4. The importance of quality of conversation
  5. Decision diagnosing and framing: the easily missed piece
  6. Thinking fast and slow: How we actually make decisions
  7. How cultures affect decision making and accountability

1. Background

It is ironic.  Our clients do not explicitly ask us to help with their decision making and taking.  However much of our work is helping our clients make and take, as a team, effective decisions about their strategy and its implementation.  I often joke that my role is to help clients all walk out of the room telling the same story.

As a result of this work, our clients recognise that we can help them improve their decision making, taking and learning process.    We often say, this stuff is simple:

Make good decisions and execute them well.

The slightly longer version:

Make good decisions, implement them well and learn from them quickly.

In fact, this is a summary of our six-step decision process.  A process that looks at the wider way in which decisions arise, are analysed, are made and taken as well as how they are implemented and how you learn from them.

A key part of this process is that we have noticed that there are two ways to learn from the decisions:

  • From the content of the decision: did we take and implement the right decision
  • From the process of the decision: Did we construct and analyse and implement the decision in the right way?

2. Examining the decision making, and taking process

First consider six frogs on a wall, two decide to jump off, how many are left?

What is the difference between decision making and decision taking?   If you hesitated in the answer, then you must have a read of:

What is the difference between decision making and decision taking, and

Why do we not notice the difference between decision making and decision taking?

3. The Excitant six step decision process

We have taken a wider look at the whole decision process;  This has lead to our Six step decision process.  I strongly recommend you have a read and think about in in the context of decisions you seen be made in your organisation. The Excitant Six-step decision process.

One aspect of decision making that gets missed is that there are often multiple levels of decision wrapped up in what seems to be one decision.  To understand this and how to unpick them, have a read of “Level of decision – potholes in the decision making road”.

4. The importance of quality of conversation

There is an overriding philosophy in our approach to do with the quality of conversation amongst a team.   We believe strategy analysis and decision making should be considered a conversation.

An aspects of the quality of conversation is to have a good argument and encourage dissent.  Because seeking quick consensus can lead to bad decisions – and how to avoid it

5. Decision diagnosis and decision framing

Have you ever been in a meeting where a topic comes up and the conversation becomes:

  • Person A: “I think that is an HR problem.”
  • Person B: “No, it’s an IT problem.”
  • Person C: “It is a problem of funding.”
  • Person D: “I think it is caused by customers and marketing.”  Etc..

Of course, you have.  Each person is looking at the problem and diagnosing it in a different way.  As a result, they believe their diagnosis is correct, and their natural instinct (management judgement) is that their approach is the way to go.   At this point, they will all leave the room taking completely different courses of action to solve the same problem.  A fundamental part of our decision model is about how decisions are first diagnosed framed and categorised. When issues that require decisions are diagnosed differently, and are framed differently, by different people, then each person will attempt to solve that problem in quite different ways. This article explores why this occurs as a natural part of how we make decisions and what you can do about it in your decision making meetings: Effective diagnosis and framing is fundamental to good decision making.

Here is a cautionary tale about a management team that tried to skip the framing and diagnosis stage of the decision process

6. Thinking fast and slow: How we actually take decisions

I am a great fan of Danial Kahnemann’s work and hiw book Thinking Fast and Slow.  It has influenced how we think about and observe decision making in organisations, and the heuristics we use.  (It also explains many of the problems I see Executives encounter in decision making and taking).  Have a read of:  Thinking fast and slow: Ho we really make executive decisions

If you are about to have a strategy off-site, then please have a read of this article.  It considers how we make decisions fast and slow, and what that means for annual off-site conversations.

7. How culture affects decisions and accountability

Sometimes we how we think about our people undermines autonomy and decision making: Are you just an employee? Or a human in a business?

Sometimes we accidentally steal accountability away from our people:  A lesson in helpfully stolen accountability, decisions and decision-making control

One aspect of decision making is the information you have.  We write extensively about balanced scorecards in other parts of the site.  We have a key test of any balanced scorecard: Does it actually inform decisions.  If not, I strongly suggest you start again.

Further Topics that may help you

This page, and all the articles associated with it, were created to help people better understand this topic. Our work with clients has led us to publish nearly 400 articles & case studies, divided into closely related topics (Zones).

Why so many articles? We have a simple view: that sharing our experiences, explaining many of topics clearly, and educating people is a good thing. That is why we give so much material away. It might not bring in consultancy engagements, but it helps people avoid mistakes, and that does matter. If you have found this useful, have a browse through our other zones:

  • Strategy: Our introduction to understanding strategy, its language, strategic thinking, development and making strategy happen. The Strategy Zone. Supported by four further zones:
  • Wider issues of Performance Management and earlier Balanced Scorecard approaches:
    • Performance Management: Diagnose problems in various types of performance management systems, and understand how our beliefs influence our approach in The Performance Management Zone
    • Modern Balanced Scorecards : Understand how earlier generations of balanced scorecards should work, (from someone who worked with Norton & Kaplan) The Modern Balanced Scorecard Zone.
  • Paradigm Shift: The context of our organisations continues to change, affecting how we think about our organisations, and how we manage. Explore the shifts and implications, in The Paradigm Shift Zone.

Of course, there is another way to get help: by using the Contact Us form below, or give us a call.