Originally published September 29, 2011
Over the summer, I had the privilege to invite some budding business owners to participate in an event that would test their skills, expose them to a side of their industry they hadn’t yet experienced, and offer them rich networking opportunities to strengthen their business ties. They arrived at a planning meeting well ahead of schedule (a plus for them), told me they were going out for supplies, and then just didn’t return. It wasn’t until I called them to verify their position that I learned they had skipped on me because of some miscommunications about the event (topic for a later article). Their leaving without warning me boiled down to one of them making a decision for the group. Decision-making, the ability to make prudent choices even in a stressful environment, is a vital tool for anyone carving out a niche in business and one that should be sharpened with practice and understanding.
One reason many people cite for going into business for themselves is the opportunity to “be the boss.” With that independence comes a great deal of responsibility and accountability, not the least of which is the honor/burden of making the decisions. Believe it or not, the decision-making process looks a lot like the problem-solving process. From clarifying an issue (whether a problem or opportunity) to gathering facts and understanding causes to brainstorming options and outcomes to selecting and testing the best option, problem-solving and decision-making follow similar steps. Where the two differ is that problem-solving requires that someone have authority to implement the solution, and decision-making assumes authority to do so. So by being the boss, business owners must be prepared to make decisions from very small matters to the weightiest concerns for themselves, their customers, their vendors, their employees, their investors, their employees, and proper authorities.
With so many – and varied – needs to be addressed and satisfied, is there any one sure-fire method for making sound, ethical decisions every time? Absolutely not. Some decisions are made after brief or arduous brainstorming. Others come after extensive research and analysis. Still others require consultation, including legal and financial advice. Many decisions don’t happen in a vacuum and must include several people’s input and ideas.
The amount of care and consideration – as well as the number of people involved in the process – depends on the complexity of the problem. “Hey, boss, this paper curls in the printer and causes a lot of paper jams. It could damage the printer.” How does a business owner deal with something like this? Call a meeting of the heads of the five families? Summon a caucus of top printing and publishing companies for advice? Or just buy – or authorize someone to buy – a different brand of paper?
A seasoned business owner will have done two things in a very short time here: make a decision and solve a problem. It takes only seconds to handle that, perhaps longer only if the boss doesn’t know anything about paper and printers.
Go back to the example in the introduction. The three business partners invited to a planning meeting for an upcoming event decided to leave the meeting after saying they were going out for supplies. When we met about this disappointment later, I learned how they arrived at their decision. They had received new information that they said had not been communicated to them earlier. They were not pleased with what they called lack of organization and lack of professionalism of some of the others at the meeting. Ultimately, they didn’t want to be there.
They defined and clarified their issue (not wanting to be there) that warranted action (leaving). They gathered facts and understood their causes (missing information to get them there in the first place, lack of organization, lack of professionalism, and others). They thought about possible options and solutions (stay and enjoy the experience, stick around for the networking opportunities, stay there and try to negotiate the circumstances, leave and be done with it all). They considered and compared the pros and cons of each option, and leaving must have scored highest among their pros. They selected the best option – leaving – to avoid uncertainty and time wasted. The only steps they missed were communicating their decision to those involved and affected and following up to ensure proper and effective implementation.
Here’s the skinny of it: Getting caught up in the “rightness” of a decision can scare new and budding business owners into making no decision at all. I had a supervisor who often treaded that “middle ground”, making as few decisions as possible to avoid becoming unpopular with peers and subordinates. Unfortunately for people like him, decision-making is not a popularity contest; it is a critical skill needed for moving individuals, departments, units, organizations, and governments toward well-defined goals (next week’s topic).
Theodore Roosevelt is credited for saying, “In any moment of decision, the best you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” Consider that for a moment. Think about times in your life, work, or business when you made the right choice. Things moved along and you achieved some goals, right? What about times when you made a wrong decision? Did you learn from it? Did you let it scare you into not making more decisions? How about times you just didn’t make a decision at all? Can you recall the consequences of that inaction?
Here’s your assignment: Rate yourself in decision-making. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the most effective decision-maker, how do you measure up? Don’t be shy about answering. Just because you score yourself low doesn’t mean you should pack it in and head back to the wanted ads. Conversely, scoring high may mean you just need to focus on the quality of your decisions. Remember, these are entrepreneurial SKILLS we’re reviewing. They can be learned and improved, finely honed. Share your thoughts and experiences in comments, and see you next week for goal-setting!