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On Life And Leadership: Invisible Decisions

A life lesson on break-ups This is probably not the forum to tell you about my breakup with a partner in my early thirties. But there’s a life lesson in it, so here goes. Let’s call her J.

Since the fairly early days, J and I did not bring out the best in each other. There were, shall we say, frequent differences of opinion on matters large and small.

Two years in, I escaped Sydney for a week’s surf trip with a couple of friends in my bright green 1977 station wagon.

Heading back home on Sunday afternoon, the petrol gauge was close to zero as we neared the entrance to the freeway. Instead of stopping for petrol before we hit the freeway, I put it off, saying to myself, “we can wait a bit longer, there’s bound to be a gas station on the freeway soon.”

Except there wasn’t. Thirty minutes later and with the gauge bouncing at the bottom of red, we had to exit the freeway and go hunting for petrol in the backwaters of the central coast. It cost us around an extra forty minutes on our journey.

Oddly enough, during those forty minutes I realized something with great clarity. Just like I had procrastinated in getting petrol, I was procrastinating over breaking up with J. I’d been in denial for a while, and then I’d known I had to do something. But I was still drifting along.

The very next day, I finally mustered the courage to end the relationship with J.

A leadership lesson on decision-making Why am I sharing this personal story?

I’m sharing it because when it comes to making decisions in life and work, I see others treading the same path.

First comes denial. There’s a problem but we ignore or downplay it.

Then comes drifting. In our heart we know there’s a problem, and we mull it over occasionally, but don’t make any real progress.

Finally, something external forces our hand, and we make a decision.

Denial. Drifting. Decision.

As a decision-making process it’s so different to what we see in forums like the Harvard Business Review, which advise executives to identify the decision, generate options, weigh them up carefully, make a decision and commit to a plan. In the three leadership teams I was in, and in the ones I work with these days, this rational and ordered decision-making process is the exception, not the rule. In fact, often the critical decisions the organisation needs to make are invisible. Hidden from view as the leaders are focused on reactive and operational issues.

Making the invisible visible Here’s how I notice leaders & teams who have invisible decisions.

  • If I ask someone, "what are the most important decisions you need to make in the next 3 months?", they often look at me blankly. They know what they need to DO, but not what they need to DECIDE.

  • Similarly, if I ask people “what’s a decision you’ve made or a problem you’ve solved in the last 3 months?”, people can’t think of any. Which is strange as surely any type of leadership role is heavily involved in making big decisions?

  • If I’m helping a team with their strategy, the initial brief will favour HOW questions above IF questions. ‘How do we get better at X?’ is less critical than, ‘Should we exit market Y?’

The benefits of F.A.T.E The good news is that if we can help surface these invisible decisions, a host of benefits awaits. They spell FATE. Focus Instead of being overwhelmed with multiple competing priorities, the organisation becomes focused on the critical decisions. Alignment The top team is aligned on the critical priorities. They are all rowing in the same direction. Time Identifying invisible decisions makes it possible to deprioritize other matters. Shutting down some workstreams will free up time. Energy The biggest benefit of all: making decisions releases enormous amount of energy. Instead of drifting along with the currents and winds, you’re committed to sail your own course. You’ve got the wind in your sails.

Next time: The Decision Window This is the first of a series of writings on this topic of Invisible Decisions. Next time I will share with you an approach I’ve been building called the Decision Window which can help you be more conscious, courageous and committed.


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