Tips for beating decision fatigue and improving workplace productivity

07 June 2017 Consultancy.uk

In today’s fast-paced environment, decision fatigue is a real risk for many people and it can significantly impact the quality of decision making. According to various internet sources, the average adult makes roughly 35,000 conscious decisions every day which, assuming 7 hours of sleep, translates into about 34 decisions per minute for every waking hour. For any adult, an alarmingly large number. Kim Murray, a Principal at management consultancy Elixirr, reflects on how organisations can reduce decision fatigue – Empower. Enable. Encourage.

Empower

It is important for people to know not just what decisions they are able to make, but what decisions they are expected to make. The simplest way we can manage our own decision fatigue is by delegating decisions to appropriate people and then importantly, empowering them to make those decisions. The more you combine accountability for a decision, the more you aggregate the rigour that is applied to making that decision. This ultimately makes it easier for people to devolve the responsibility for making bad decisions. Empower individuals, not committees. 

In large organisations, these decision rights are often translated into decision matrices. The challenge is keeping them simple as the documents tend to become over-complicated, and then are often contradicted by unaligned or out-of-date policies. This can create confusion and cause people to be reluctant to make a decision for fear that they may be contravening some unknown policy or procedure, and may later be penalised… Startups and smaller companies often have an advantage when making decisions as they are not encumbered by legacy bureaucracy and hierarchy that often makes decision-making so difficult in larger organisations. However there is a tendency in owner-managed businesses for all the decisions to be made at the top and as a business grows, the leader needs to learn to let go and trust other people to make decisions. 

In today’s fast-paced environment, decision fatigue is a real risk for many people and organisations

Decision rights need to be simple and clearly articulated so that people know intuitively when they can make a decision and when they need to defer. Including decision rights in job descriptions is one way to embed accountability for decision making, but it does need to be thoughtfully structured and cascaded from the top down.

Enable

It’s one thing giving people the right to make decisions, but it’s entirely another to enable people to make good decisions! Organisations must give their people the right skills and capabilities to ensure this happens. There are 2 key enablers – access to information and access to experience – and organisations must make sure they are readily available to their team.

1. Access to information
When someone needs to make a decision, they need to have all the information readily available in an easy-to-use format. With all the data we have these days, one would assume that this should be easy to achieve! But, the advent of big data has, in some ways, made it more difficult. Having the right information, available at the right time in an easy-to-use format is still a challenge that many organisations face. And having large amounts of data is useless unless it can be harnessed to provide insights that enable decision making. 

2. Access to experience
At all levels of decision making, accessing the knowledge and expertise of other people can enhance the quality of a decision, and then provide assistance with the implementation that comes afterwards. People need to be able to access forums of people, both formally and informally, where they can test ideas and gather input to inform decisions. These ‘circles of trust’ should enable collaboration and shared learning without creating the bureaucracy that often hampers the decision-making process. Cross-functional teams that work across traditional siloes are a useful way to harness a diverse range of skills and experience that ultimately lead to an enhanced outcome. 

Traditionally this is the role of committees, but it is important to highlight the importance of harnessing the collective to provide input and insight, while retaining the principle of an individual decision-owner. 

Beating decision fatigue:

Encourage

It should go without saying that if an organisation expects people to make decisions, they should be encouraged to make decisions! However, there are some behaviours and practices that we see inside some large companies that discourage people from actively making decisions – consciously and unconsciously. So how can leaders create a positive decision making environment? 

Lead by example
Demonstrate good behaviour by openly taking your teams through your own decision making process. Be sure to include constructively using input and consultation to inform a decision, but ultimately making that decision as an individual.

Track the execution of a decision
Making the decision is only the first step. Often the real challenge is how a decision is implemented, so it is important to track how a decision is converted into action and ultimately how it creates value.

Value diversity of opinion & experience
A fundamental step in the decision making process – actively seek out input from colleagues or experts in other areas of the business that may have different views.

Discourage the upward delegation of decisions
People who aren’t yet comfortable or confident in their own ability to make a decision will often try to ‘delegate upwards’ to avoid having to own their decision. Leaders need to recognise this behaviour and coach team members through the decision-making process rather than just making the decision for them. Making it for them is often the path of least resistance but will not benefit anyone in the long-term. 

Empower individuals, enable skills  and capabilities and encourage behavior

Acknowledge bad decisions & learn from them
There will be bad decisions! The impact will hopefully be small but these bad decisions need to be openly acknowledged and learnt from. If people are scared of making bad decisions, it is highly likely they will shy away from all decisions. Decision rights need to be structured in such a way that people can ‘grow into’ the big decisions by practicing making the right decisions where the impact is limited inside a safe environment. Rapid prototyping and iterative testing can assist to test decisions quickly within a safe, contained environment with limited downside risk.

In conclusion

Effective decision-making can be a positive way to empower individuals, reduce decision fatigue, and enhance the quality of decisions by harnessing the diverse experience and skills of a team. Leaders must actively think about the ways that they can individually and collectively support their team members in making better decisions. This will ultimately create value for the business as well as for the individuals inside it.

We recommend taking these 4 practical steps to enable better decision making:

  • Ensure that you clearly articulate and communicate decision mandates within your business or team.
  • Equip your people with the right skills and capabilities to make necessary decisions and make the relevant information readily available to support the decision-making process.
  • Create a positive decision making environment by valuing diversity of opinion and experience, and by leading by example.
  • Actively the track decisions through to execution, sharing success but also recognising incorrect decisions and learning from them.

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