Management skills: Four ways to make great decisions quickly

Tech professionals continue to face ever-growing demands for digital transformation. When the going gets tough, here's how to make quick calls so you can focus on delivery.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

The rapid rate of digital transformation means it's never been more important for IT leaders to make big calls quickly.

That's sometimes easier said than done. With multiple inputs and data points, CIOs and their technology teams have to be careful not to overthink the questions that the business poses and to instead make strong, fast decisions that produce the right results for the rest of the organisation.

So what's the key to effective decision making? Four business leaders give us their top tips.

1. Don't be afraid to let your people trip up and recover

Nicki Doble, group CIO at insurance specialist Cover-More, thinks the best thing an executive can do is to make a call and get on with delivering. "Done is better than perfect," she says.

Doble says companies with a clear strategy and vision are always going to have what she refers to as "no-regret decisions", where senior managers can make choices quickly and then focus on the work at hand. Other decisions will be tougher – and that's where great tech leaders aren't afraid to act.

"If you're trying to get delivery pieces out, you need an environment that allows decision making," she says. If people are overthinking things, it's probably a culture that's not safe to fail she argues.

The result can be lot of people committing to projects they know might not produce great outcomes, but that no one speaks up – and, inevitably, no useful products are delivered. Doble encourages a different approach.

"If you want people to go and do stuff, you've got to sometimes let your people trip over and recover. Most of the time, you'll be alright and can course correct quick enough," she says.

2. Empower the rest of your team to take decisions

Karl Hoods, chief digital and information officer at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, says most C-suite executives have a "gut feel" when they're asked to make choices. This instinct comes from years at the leadership coalface.

"If you build up a long career of making decisions and getting through stuff, you know what's right – and you know what's wrong," he says.

However, experience is no substitute for expert knowledge. Hoods says he can't afford to make big calls in isolation – and that's often due to the weight of work he has to deal with. It's then that he reaches out to trusted staff across his team.

"I have to deal with so much that I'm not the expert on everything, so I try and empower the rest of the team to take those decisions," he says.

"An effective servant/leadership-type approach means knowing that you can't be the decision maker on every single thing. I can be there to support people and I can help them think through the decisions they might want to come to. But, ultimately, I've got a team of experts; why would I think I'm the expert on everything?"

In those situations, Hoods just asks his staff to tell him in advance if and when something's likely to go wrong: "Forewarned is forearmed," he says.

3. Commit to a decision and go out and execute

Michael Voegele, chief digital and information officer at tobacco company Philip Morris International, says business leaders and their teams must work hard to ensure that long decision-making processes don't get in way of on-the-ground delivery. That's something he's prioritising in his own role right now.

"I spoke to my team and I said, 'Look, this is not the year of debate and discussions'," he says. "We have made all the decisions, we have decided where we want to go, we have clear metrics, and we understand the journey and the ultimate target, so let's focus on the execution."

Voegele recognises that business circumstances can change and that CIOs and their teams will need to course correct. What they must avoid, however, is to allow the decision-making process to be constantly reopened for negotiation.

"That's not what we do – we have made a decision through a thorough process of looking at all the inputs. At the end of the day, our work is not about just making a decision, but is about executing it and delivering against it. And I think that's an important aspect. We need to get away from the thinking of once a decision is made, it starts another phase of negotiations," he says.

"People talk a lot about the time it takes to make decisions. I think it's even more fundamental that, once a decision is made, that we are committed and go and execute, and that we do not continuously challenge the decisions going forward."

4. Use the data to help you get on with delivering

Claire Dickson, group CIO at multinational packaging business DS Smith, says she's a data-led decision maker. When the right information is at hand, business leaders must be strong enough to make a call.

"I think if we've got the right data, it's really easy to make decisions," she says. "And we should just make decisions and move on. And actually, in a world where you're iterating anyway, you can always iterate and adjust your course as you move on."

Dickson says benchmarking and industry comparisons can help business leaders to make calls on significant strategic concerns. She also says that the key to successful decision making is often simply "following the money", which she encourages her team to do.

But most of all, she says that – in a modern business environment that's dominated by Agile leadership styles – it's important to just make a call and understand that minor modifications can usually be made.

"I think making a decision is better than not making one," she says. "Let's not paralyse the decision-making process by slowing everything down. In a world of iterating small bits at a time, that's a better way of doing it." 

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