Getting to Yes… or No: How to Make a Decision

Posted on September 11, 2023

Graphic of a sign post with three directional signs showing question marks. Behind the sign the word "decisions" is repeated three times.

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Greg LeBlanc – Assistant Town Manager, Town of Snowmass Village, Colo. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

  • What I’m watching: Monk
  • A hobby I enjoy: Sewing
  • What I’m reading: The Weekender Effect


When I was in City Manager School (aka, the MPA program at the University of Colorado), the coursework focused on management essentials – the elements of negotiation, organizational management, and budget development. The instructors offered great insights, and my colleagues and I analyzed numerous case studies, which proved to be an excellent introduction to the world of public management. A decade later, I still find value in applying these lessons to daily tasks. However, one skill that I have had to develop in the workplace is how to make a decision.

A decision is the conclusion or resolution reached after consideration. At face value, decisions are simple and ethereal – they come and go easily. But in the world of local government and the public sector, a decision can have real impacts on oneself, on their organization, and on their community. It is a misconception, especially in the local government world, that a good decision is one that attracts widespread approval. Rather, a good decision is one that affects an element of change with respect to its constraints. Knowing how to make a decision, and more importantly – when to make a decision – are important skills that effective public managers must possess.


Why is it so hard to make a decision?

Decisions, on their face, are seldom straightforward. According to some estimates, the average adult makes up to 35,000 decisions every day. These decisions range from the miniscule – those that are largely handled by the subconscious – to the major decisions – what to eat for dinner, how much to budget for a project, or deciding if a staff member needs to move to a performance improvement plan. Managers will recognize that many major decisions happen in our professional lives, but it is important to note that decisions of all levels of severity occur in our personal and professional lives.  

The complexity of a decision is influenced by a variety of factors. Tangible factors such as complexity, uncertainty, and tangible consequences are balanced by abstract factors such as lack of self-confidence, bad feelings, and the unforeseen.

When faced with tens of thousands of decisions in a day, leaders face hesitation, which impedes the decision-making process. When this happens, the decision-maker struggles to decide. Good decisions are made by accountable leaders who follow a clear process, consider relevant information, and know when a decision needs to be made.


How do I make a decision?

With deference granted to the numerous factors that may influence, decision-making is a deliberative process. Using this deliberative process can help one make thoughtful decisions by organizing relevant information. The process is roughly as follows:

  1. Identify the Problem and Understand the Root Cause – In this first step, the decision-maker needs to understand that a decision needs to be made. It is important to make sure a decision addresses the core of the issue, or a root cause, not just a symptom, as this will lead to misidentifying the problem. 
  2. Gather Information, Identify Alternatives, and Analyze – Next, the decision-maker must collect any relevant information that can be used to make a decision. If relevant information is not readily available, identify how to access it. Lacking relevant information can lead to a poor understanding of the problem, making it harder to make a good decision about it. With adequate information, the decision-maker can then identify appropriate courses of action and weigh the alternatives. 

    It is important to note that seasoned decision-makers will prioritize alternatives based on the level of desirability. Doing so will allow creativity in reaching the final decision, which may be a combination of those desired outcomes. It is also important to note that failing to consider risks (positive and negative) can result in an uninformed decision. Similarly, allowing bias to cloud one’s judgment will undermine objectivity in effective decision-making.

  3. Take Action – Easier said than done, taking action requires the decision-maker to be confident in their decision, and to act quickly to achieve the chosen outcome. Be sure to communicate the decision to those involved. The purpose of this communication is not to seek approval or consensus, but rather to ensure a consistent level of understanding. Strong communication is a key trait of any effective manager, and is necessary for the smooth implementation of a decision.

Consider the process above as a guide for your own decision-making journey. Managers should note that the decision-making process is not one-size-fits-all because influential factors affect the process and may cause the decision-maker to misidentify the problem.


When should I make a decision?

Potentially more challenging to local government leaders than learning how to make a decision is knowing when to make a decision. As alluded to above, this is a skill that most leaders only master once they have been working within their chosen profession for some time. 

The poor timing of a good decision is detrimental to the desired outcome. Consider the following when faced with a decision:

  1. Good Decisions are Timely – Leaders will procrastinate on decisions due to a host of factors – overwhelm, fear of making the wrong decision, or popular opinion. These feelings are valid but, ultimately, should be part of the decision-maker’s assessment of risk. The objective assessment of risk can inform the approach to the decision-making process. Try not to let this deliberation impede progress towards making a decision. 

    If a decision needs to be made following an event or a call for action, do not spend too much time gathering the facts. Timely decisions are the result of only considering those factors that truly are relevant to the decision, and input from those who truly add value to the process.

  2. Good Decisions Address Root Causes, Not Just Symptoms – Much of decision-making is the educated evaluation of one’s tolerance to risk, and as such, address the holistic impacts of the problem if left unaddressed. Even relatively simple decisions can have long- and short-term impacts on your organization. Left unaddressed, a problem could pose a larger threat to your organization’s resources, timelines of projects, and constituent satisfaction. For this reason, decisions should not languish. If something needs to be addressed, address it before the impacts of inaction become severe.With consideration to the above, leaders should be cautious about making decisions that address only symptoms, rather than the root cause of the problem. Follow a process for making a decision, but be sure to consider information that addresses the root cause of the problem. Quick decision-making for the sake of making a decision will create more issues than decisions made with deliberate thought. Consider the timeline of your process. Was the decision made hastily to address a symptom, or was deliberate action taken to address the root cause?


Decide with confidence

We are faced with many decisions every day. While many of these decisions are made without even thinking, others require more thought. Leaders faced with big decisions must follow a process and consider how the timing of their decisions can affect their organization. Local government leaders who possess strong decision-making skills can help their communities, organizations, and selves through informed, deliberate, and timely action.

Close window