Decision Triage

Having too much time on our hands doesn’t seem to be a problem too many of us have. It’s the opposite problem we’re trying to avoid. Our plates are full. Our inbox overflowing. There’s more work to do than time in the day. We only have so much energy and attention available to tackle the non-stop workload. Frustration follows from allowing things to fester, flowing into an ever growing inbox, undone decisions distract. Consider embracing a framework like decision triage in order to help you Only Handle It Once otherwise known as the OHIO rule. To be effective, we need to allocate our limited time and attention to the things that will help us move the needle in the direction we want to go. How can we take steps to ensure we’re working on things that are most beneficial for us? Sam Kyle in The Decision Checklist prompts us to ask ourselves: “Is there a gap between your potential as a decision maker and how you make decisions in practice?” For most of us, the answer is, possibly, yes. The below framework can be used to help triage decisions such that we’re focusing our attention where it needs to be.

Decision Triage can be done in four steps: Discard, Automate or Delegate, Decide, or Defer to Deliberate.

Discard. All too often we spend time doing things that are best left undone. The first step to managing our attention is to ignore or say no to most things. As Peter Drucker reminds us, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” This is our first filter in the Decision Triage framework. Our goal is to be ruthless with respect to reducing. Our default decision is no. If we aren’t clear with an answer to the question of why we’re doing something, then we shouldn’t be doing it. This step is all about culling the chaff. We’re trying to get rid of the things that get in the way.

It’s worth recognizing that the utility of decision triage is dependent on the clarity we have with respect to both our role and direction. Our struggles to determine which decisions to discard, delegate, decide, or defer stem primarily from not knowing what is important for us. Developing direction or clarity is the starting point for better decision triage. This is particularly the case with respect to determining decisions to discard. If we’re unsure of what’s important, then everything seems important. We won’t know to what to say no. Start with getting clear, so it’s easier to see what can go.

Automate or Delegate. Once things make it past the discard stage, we should look for opportunities to automate decisions that may come up again and again. Is there software we can use or create that will remove the necessity to manage repetitive tasks? Are there “if/then” rules we can craft that speed up completion of simple tasks?  Are you in a position to consider investing in technology to automate a task? In our world, we work through the following to determine if we can automate something. First, can we define in detail the steps involved and are these steps the same each time? If yes, then compare the cost of the task (time to do x frequency plus the cost of mistakes (time to fix x frequency of errors occurring with the task) with the cost to automate. If the cost to automate is less than or equal to the cost to undertake the task for a year, then investing in automating is worthwhile for us.

If we can’t automate, then we want to hand the decision to someone else to manage. Delegating is the heart of empowering others. Delegating well is finding the balance between micromanaging and abandoning others. This involves striving to thread the needle between providing just enough guidance to get the job done well without being so stifling that we kill desire to perform well. If we err on the side of giving complete freedom for deciding to those to whom a task has been delegated, then we run the risk of abandoning them which defeats the point of building skills. We’re no better off nor is our business.  We discuss suggestions for finding this balance in a separate article. We want to give decisions to others in order to help them develop. Provided the decision is one where the person we’re delegating to is equipped with understanding and authority for the area of the decision, then delegation is the suggested approach.

The ideal outcome of delegating done well is two-fold. First, it frees us up to focus on decisions where we can make the most difference. The second objective is to delegate decisions to those best suited to make them. We want those around us to be better than us at all kinds of things. Giving them the power to make decisions in their area of expertise allows better decisions to be made than if we were doing them ourselves. Our organizations benefit as a result. This is a principle writer, David Perell, has coined “Delegate, then Elevate.” The goal is for leaders to remove themselves from being a bottleneck to business progress. If every detail must first be approved by you, yes, you may feel needed; but, no, the organization isn’t helped. The best leaders delegate decisions to those best suited to make sound choices. It’s not grudgingly passing off responsibility with hopes that others don’t screw things up. It’s about ensuring you have those around you better equipped than you to handle these types of decisions. Perell notes that delegation is driven by two questions. First, who should be in charge of this area? Second, how are they going to execute better than I can? Answering these questions allows a business to transcend a single leader and grow rapidly ensuring those best equipped with skills and knowledge make decisions.

It’s worth noting that by delegating a decision, it doesn’t mean out of sight and out of mind for a leader. Though the decision will  be made by another, the responsibility remains with the one that delegated. Steven Sample writes in The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership that, “just because a leader can delegate the making of decisions to lieutenants doesn’t mean he can avoid taking responsibility for those decisions, especially if things turn out badly as a result.”  This is an area where we can learn from military leaders who understand full well the difference between delegating and abdicating. They delegate decisions to subordinates without abdicating responsibility for the decisions subordinates make. This is a hallmark differentiating professionals from amateurs.

We want to give decisions to others in order to free up our own time for the next two levels.

Decide. If we don’t have someone to whom we can delegate a decision or we determine that it is something for which we’re responsible, then we should seek to decide right away. If the decision is not consequential and capable of being reversed, then the stakes are reasonably low. In these instances, making a decision right away is best. Decide and be done. Deferring these decisions just keeps things festering in the back of our mind and prevents us from allocating our attention fully where most needed. Speed is our friend here.

Defer to Deliberate. At this point, the decision triage framework has, hopefully, succeeded in having most decisions dealt with. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the decisions that are left are difficult ones. The fun ones have all been dispatched. Former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson realized about the US Presidency, “At the top, there are no easy choices. All are between evils, the consequences of which are hard to judge.” As easier decisions have been handled through the prior steps of discarding, delegating, and deciding, we’re left with making the choice between two tough outcomes.

Our goal is to use decision triage to reduce those that make it this far to a small percentage. Perhaps, 20% or less of decisions with which we’re presented should make it here. Our goal is for the types of activity to fall into this category to be those on which we’re making the biggest difference to our organization with our efforts. It’s our personal 80/20. If selected well, these 20% of our decisions will reflect 80% of our results. Decisions we make on these items are the ones that will have the most impact. Decisions which involve significant consequences or commitments fall into this bucket. Steven Sample writes in The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, “Making a good decision is hard, time-consuming work, and no leader can make many good decisions in a month’s time, much less in a day or a week. So he needs to carefully reserve for himself only the most important decisions.”

It’s natural to then ask what type of decisions make the cut to be part of the select few for you? Sample suggests, “First, the leader should reserve to himself the hiring, compensating, motivating, molding, assessing and firing of his chief lieutenants. In the long term these may well be the most important decisions that any leader makes (a point that is missed by almost all books on leadership). Second, the leader himself should make those decisions which have the greatest potential impact on the organization or movement he’s leading.”

Those that carry impact and may be difficult to reverse are those that we should be careful to take time to work through. We should heed the wisdom of George Washington’s words, “Decision making, like coffee, needs a cooling process.”  Once we determine a decision to be at this level, we must do all that we can to avoid deciding in the moment and defer to deliberate on our own terms. We can lean on the lesson of the 6 P’s of Pause to help us here. When making a difficult decision consider asking yourself: OATW – “OK, and then what?” Use this as a prompt to spur second order thinking and to avoid the law of unintended consequences. Work through what the impact of your decision is likely to be. Try to predict what the outcome will look like. How will you know? When will you look? Consider at what point you would intervene if you determine that results are trending off course relative to your expectations. Do all of this in advance of finalizing the decision. Taking the time to do this extra thinking ensures that you’re acting with greater clarity and intention. Both will increase the probabilities of progress with the decision being made. At some point, the trigger must be pulled, a decision made. As President John F. Kennedy observed, “There are risks and costs to a program of action, but they are far outweighed by the long-term risks and costs of comfortable action.” Perhaps, you’ve heard the one about the five frogs on a log? One of them decides to jump off, how many frogs remain? That’s right, there’s still five frogs on the log. There’s a big difference between deciding and doing. Our fifth frog may have decided, but that’s not enough. The action starts once the decision has been made. Theodore Roosevelt gives us the quote, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

Good decisions can’t be made without effort. Thinking is required. Thinking demands time. Unfortunately, there seems to be an inverse relationship between busyness and decision quality. The more rushed we are, the more mistakes may be made. Mistakes made from the mayhem of the moment tend to create more busyness as efforts are now diverted into the direction of damage control. Shane Parrish observes that “Your decisions do the talking for your thinking.” Poor decisions reflect poor thought and good decisions demonstrate decent deliberation. Parrish in the same article writes, “Good decisions create time, bad ones consume it. Good initial decisions pay dividends for years, allowing abundant free time and low stress. Poor decisions, on the other hand, consume time, increase anxiety, and drain us of energy.” Taking time to give yourself a chance to think prior to deciding on meaningful matters makes our futures easier which creates a positive reinforcing cycle that provides less stress and more time to handle future decisions.