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The Anatomy of High-Impact Decisions

The Anatomy of High-Impact Decisions

It’s important that we understand how all the little choices we make add up to potentially significant consequences – but in reality, there are big decisions and there are small decisions. 

So what are “high-impact” decisions… they’re the ones that really test you… the ones that scare you a little (or maybe a lot)… the ones that you know can potentially have serious consequences if you get them wrong. 

You don’t have to be the CEO of a Fortune 100 company to make high-impact decisions. The founder of any small business has to make decisions every day, many of which can potentially make or break their business.

Decisions about products, markets, pricing, quality, staffing… and many of these have to be made with little data or market intelligence. 

Depending on your role and level, you’ll have varying exposures to high-impact decisions. Any decision can be challenging because we don’t want to get it wrong. We don’t want to upset the people who don’t agree with it. We don’t want to be seen to be either too authoritative or too indecisive. 

So making a really good decision can be difficult, not just because of the logistical challenges, but also because of our psychological and emotional barriers. In high-impact decisions, these factors are magnified. 

To make matters worse, high-impact decisions very often come with time pressure. There’s one really important factor to bear in mind: Your process for making decisions has to be the same, regardless of the decision’s potential impact, regardless of the time pressure, regardless of your own comfort levels, and regardless of your desire to have better inputs.

How much time, effort, and diligence you put into each step of the process will be determined by your assessment of risk:

  • How critical is the decision? 
  • How easy is it to reverse or adjust? 
  • How broadly does it impact the organization? 
  • How many people are affected? 
  • Is it within the company’s risk tolerance and risk appetite?

For example, deciding to extend the deadline on a project is generally a much lower impact decision than a decision to sack the project manager. That requires real judgment and it requires real commitment.

I often used to tell my senior executives not to be so stressed about making their decisions, and I would routinely say things like, “Look guys, we’re not landing space shuttles here. We’re not performing cardio-thoracic surgery. No one’s dying on the table. Just cool your jets.” 

But in some situations, the stakes actually are that high, and in some industries people do actually die on the table, so to speak. 

No matter how big or small the decision, using your experience and judgment to put it into context is vital.

Former Navy Seal commander Mike Hayes has a simple 3-step process that acts as a North Star, even when the stakes of a decision are incredibly high:

  1. Gather Input
  2. Decide when to decide
  3. Be prepared to course correct 

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