Decision-making is about more than appearing decisive. It’s about managing the context so that we achieve the outcomes we desire.

How do you succeed in today’s rapidly changing world?

By making decisions faster than the competition? By identifying opportunities, rapidly zeroing in on the best ones, and then pursuing them relentlessly?

Not so fast. There’s a growing body of evidence that rapid decision-making isn’t the key to success…

The best sports players, for instance, seem to make decisions more slowly than their competitors. Studies of Novak Djokovic show that he waits several milliseconds longer than many of his opponents before he decides how he’s going to hit the ball. 

By waiting that little bit longer, he is better able to choose his shot and hence wrongfoot his opponent.

Djokovic gains this advantage through his ability to execute. Having decided, he can position himself, swing his racket and hit the ball much more rapidly than most of his opponents.

That speed of execution gives him those added milliseconds to observe the ball and his opponent’s situation, and hence to decide how best to respond.He has extra time to gather and analyse information: a truly decisive advantage.

We see the same story in elite military pilots.  The OODA cycle – observe, orient, decide and act – is grounded in studies of the way they succeed in dogfights. The winner isn’t the one who reacts most quickly, but the one who decides how to act most effectively. 

To do this, they give themselves time, and they try to act in ways that deprive their opponents of time.

The timescales may be different in business, but the same principles apply. Successful organisations are going to be the ones which:

Build the ability to execute rapidly

If you can’t execute, it doesn’t matter what decisions you make. As importantly, if you can execute well, that frees up time to make better decisions. Successful organisations are going to devote a lot of time and thought to improving their execution.  They’ll adopt lean principles in order to reduce cycle times.  They’ll rehearse regularly so that routine tasks become automatic. 

They’ll track metrics to ensure they fully understand their capabilities. They’ll build a realistic level of confidence in their ability to act, so they don’t panic when under pressure and hence feel forced to decide too rapidly.

Build reflection into their decision-making processes

Most of us are under enormous pressure to act, to show that we’re doing something.  As well as building the ability to execute, organisations need to build the ability to stop and think. 

They need to become comfortable with inaction, with sitting and watching and waiting for the right moment to spring.  Most of us are really bad at that.

This reflection also needs to extend into the organisational learning cycle.  How well are people gathering information and analysing it?  Are they using it to make the right decisions?  This reflection is the route to improving the overall cycle, from information gathering to decision-making to execution.

Understand the “last responsible moment”

There comes a point when it’s too late to act.  The exact point is determined by our ability to execute and by the decision context (what others are doing, how the environment is changing, etc).  Beyond that point our actions are guaranteed to fail.  And even before that “last possible moment”, the cost of inaction may start to grow rapidly as options become more expensive and eventually get closed off.

Successful organisations will develop an understanding of the impact of timing on their decisions.  When does the value of gathering additional information outweigh the loss of options that comes through delay?  When does this balance shift? 

They’ll manage this timing actively, not solely with a view to accelerating the decision, but more to find the right time to decide and begin acting. Not too fast. Not too slow.

Learn to recognise different types of decision

We generally make decisions in one of three broad situations – routine operations, novel situations, and crises.

In routine operations, we understand how things work, so we can analyse the situation and choose the best option for action.In these cases, doing that analysis and delaying decisions until the last responsible moment makes a lot of sense.

In novel situations, on the other hand, we don’t know enough to fully analyse what’s going on. We still need to learn how things work. Such learning requires action, to test the environment and understand the way it responds. 

So again it makes sense to delay our final decisions until we know more (otherwise we’d simply be making random decisions, uninformed by any real understanding of the situation). But the delay involves active learning rather than analysis.

In crises, we’re under immediate threat from something that’s happening around us.  We need to act rapidly to stabilise the situation, buying time for further analysis and decision-making later.  So action must precede considered decision-making.

Successful organisations are going to be able to recognise these different circumstances, and adjust their decision-making strategies accordingly.

Decision-making is about more than appearing decisive. It’s about managing the context so that we achieve the outcomes we desire.  Another group we can learn from here is the comedians.  They’ll tell you that it’s all about timing.