Decision-Making in Difficult Times

Becky Morehouse

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One of the great responsibilities of leadership is to make tough decisions. In these difficult times, great leadership has never been more needed.  

With this in mind, here is a simple, six-step process to help you make the best decisions for your students and institution. 

1. Prioritize the decisions that need to be made.  

The odds are high that you have multiple decisions on your plate. Your first decision, then, is to decide what to decide first. Part of this calculation must include an analysis of the cost of no decision.  

As you think about how to prioritize the decisions that are before you, consider what decisions will:  

  • Have the greatest impact on our people?  
  • Most quickly stabilize the organization? 
  • Need to be made now so for greater clarity around decisions that will be made later? 

In most cases, it is up to the senior team or cabinet, with input from the board and perhaps a couple of key advisors, to establish and order the list of decisions to be made.  

2. Assemble the decision-making teams.  

Because different decisions may require different skillsets, you may need more than one decision-making team.  

As you assemble your teams, remember that talent, organizational maturity, and political acumen are often more important than titles. Remember, too, to stack your teams with doers and not just thinkers.  

3. Equip the team.  

An effective decision-making team needs these five things:  

iAbsolute clarity around the decision to be made. Precision here will save you time, reduce misguided debate, and increase the likelihood that your decision will be correct. 

ii. Access to all relevant external and internal information.  

iii. Understanding of the decision-making criteria. They need variables that will be part of the decision-making process, such as:  

  • Impact on key audiences  
  • Financial cost/benefits 
  • Political cost/benefits 
  • PR cost/benefits 
  • Impact on future operations  
  • Risk 
  • Ease of implementation/scalability/flexibility 
  • Evaluation mechanism 
  • Impact on market position 

iv. A firm date for when the decision must be made. Higher education has often chosen to let the date for tough decisions float. While that might have been OK in the past, it is not OK now. Events are moving far too quickly, and uncertainty can crush the spirit of your people.  

The campus community (students, faculty, staff, alumni) needs the certainty of decisive leadership when so many other things in their lives are so painfully uncertain. 

v. Protection from nay-sayers and reluctants. The president and senior leadership team must actively and vocally protect the team from factions who would impede its progress no matter how well intentioned they may be.  

4. Develop multiple courses of action.  

Better decisions come from better choices. One of the most important responsibilities of the decision-making team is to develop two or three thoughtful courses of action. It is against these plans that the decision criteria (see above) are applied.  

Keep in mind, however, that the final choice may be an amalgam of the options that were presented.   

5. Decide.  

With the decision criteria in hand, make the best choice. Your goal is not a perfect decision, but a good decision made in a timely fashion. Remember, nothing of consequence happens until you decide.  

6. Execute, communicate, and evaluate.   

  • Execute. The time for talking is over. It is time to do. Put together a rough but responsible implementation plan and execute. Chances are, at least some of the people on the decision-making team will be on, or even lead, the execution team.  
  • Communicate. Your campus community needs to hear that progress is being made. Get the word out.  
  • Evaluate. Review not only the implementation of the decision, but also the decision-making process that led to the decision. Think carefully about the team and its composition. Who was valuable? What expertise were you lacking? Who didn’t contribute? Fine-tune the process for next time. 

Let me close with three reminders.  

  1. You will never know all you need to know to make the decisions you must make. Don’t get distracted by what you don’t know. Instead, move ahead with what you do.  
  1. Share incremental progress achievements. Your campus needs to know that progress is being made.  
  1. Remember that no matter what you decide, someone will be unhappy and vocal. Trust the team. Trust the process. And trust the heart of your campus. 

Want to learn more? Schedule a free consultation today.

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