I have this intuition that the process is not the most important ingredient in making better decisions. Instead, the key is the mindset with which we’re entering the decisions-making process.
The process still plays a valuable part, but it only works when we have the right mix of mindsets. Some mindsets are more effective at decision-making than others.
Here’s a sketch of the different types of mindsets that show up in decision making. These aren’t character labels or personas. People can be in different mindsets depending on the context and circumstances. Mindsets can shift over time, and sometimes in the moment.
Note, that I am cleverly avoiding the actual hard problem: answering the “How do we bring people into these mindsets to make good decisions?”. I am tackling the easy part: identifying the mindsets we need to make better decisions.
The opportunistic stance is the least helpful of the bunch. In the opportunistic mindset, the process of decision-making is a vehicle for advancing my own agenda. I am not here to make decisions. I am here to use this key moment for my benefit. This stance is why politics gets a bad rap. Am I in this process to move it forward, or am I here to subvert it to serve my needs? This stance can seem beneficial in hostile environments, but at that point, there is no actual decision-making going on. It’s all just political theater.
My friends at FLUX have this amazing lens of “kayfabe”, which applies very well to decision-making processes where everyone is in the opportunistic stance – everyone knows this is not about making the decision, yet preserves the appearance and the form of the process. As soon as we detect this kind of state of affairs, ejecting from this environment as soon as possible might just be the best option available. In other words: run. Otherwise, we’ll likely become the chair in this fake-wrestling match.
The opinionless mindset is not that much better. It usually presents itself as deference to the opinion of others. In this stance, I am a carrier of another’s opinion, rather than proprietor of my own. Typically, the opinionless stance is revealed by turns of phrase like “the studies show” or “the <senior leader> said” or “I heard that” when presenting an opinion. When making decisions, this stance is superfluous. If I find myself in this stance, I am much better off excusing myself from participating in any decision-making. Since I don’t hold this opinion, I can’t articulate the value it contains.
The opinionless stance can lead to weird stalemates when trying to make decisions. If “Alice thinks that we should ship Widgets”, and nobody else can figure out why, yet Alice isn’t here to present the opinion, an easy – and more productive – thing to do is to dismiss the opinion. However, if Alice holds power (be that expertise or rank or any other sort), the opinionless participants beholden to this power will stall and derail the process. In the past, I called the opinionless stance “weak opinions, strongly held”. What’s worse, most of the time, it feels awful to be in that stance, stuck between the rock and the hard place of differing opinions.
It’s not to say that opinions of others don’t matter. They do. However, if I myself am not of this opinion, I improve decisions-making by presenting them as the input for the process, rather than part of it. Let others who actually hold opinions examine this information and incorporate it into their reasoning.
If we look around the room when decisions are being made, and see that most are in the opinionless stance, woe to us. This is not a decision-making meeting, but rather an opinion pachinko machine: it’s hard to know where we will land, but it is clear that the decision will be random and will fail to stick.
Whenever possible, remove (or self-remove) opinionless folks from the process. At the same time, recognize that often, the opinionless stance is forced: it is a defensive crouch that’s assumed by the folks who feel compelled to hide their actual opinion – usually due to some power dynamic. If that’s the case, opportunistic kayfabe is the next stop in our decision-making adventure, and it might be worth investigating what’s causing the defensive crouch.
Decision-making gets better when we have an opinionated stance. There’s some experience that we’ve accumulated along the way that gives us enough confidence to claim that we understand what needs to be done. We hold an opinion and it is ours. We can defend it, present evidence that this opinion is correct, and evidence that other opinions aren’t.
With an opinionated mindset in the mix, a decision-making process can get contentious and rather heated. In organizations that overvalue being agreeable, opinionated decision-making may feel like a failure of a process. It may look that way, but it is a definite improvement over the previous two stances. Folks in the opinionated stance often over-identify with their opinions, and understandably infuse emotion into the conversation. When managed poorly, these conversations can get unproductive. However, it is also how we know that we might just make good decisions.
In my experience, I’ve seen so many teams confuse the heat of the opinionated minds grappling around a decision with unproductive decision-making. In the seemingly logical move, people with actual opinions get quietly removed from the conversation, and replaced with folks in an opinionless stance. We are then surprised that our decisions are bland and seemingly random. I would much rather endure cranky engineers fighting over the idea and help them manage their emotions than toss coins into the decision pachinko machine.
Spotting opinionated folks is easy: they usually disrupt a conversation with phrases like “well, that is stupid” or “hey, that’s not right”. This may seem counterintuitive, but these are our markers that we have something valuable: actual opinions. Disagreements are good. First, it means that the environment we’ve created is safe enough to voice these disagreements. And second, it signals that we have a foundation for effective decision-making.
In my experience, when put into the same decision-making situation, folks in opinionated stance and folks in opinionless stance tend to have a strong aversion to each other. From the opinionless stance, the opinionated ones look like rabble rousers and troublemakers, the fire to be put out. From the opinionated stance, an opinionless participant is a dead weight. Their lack of opinion is easily smelled and the bozo bit flipped. When the two are mixed in a meeting, get ready for a mostly dysfunctional gathering, with everyone eventually falling back to the opportunist stance.
An upgrade and likely the zenith of decision-making effectiveness is the principled mindset. When I am in this stance, I understand the problem space enough to see that there are many valid approaches to the problem, and many opinions may lead to a possible solution. I also know that none of these will be perfect.
Instead, I focus on what’s important and let that guide my thinking. Principled stance tends to have a slower start compared to the opinionated stance. In the opinionated stance, I already have my opinion, so I just come out swinging trying to get other opinions out of the way. In the principled stance, I first try to understand the principles: what are the attributes of the solution that are important? What are the desired properties we want the solution to have? I see getting these right as the key part of the process, and folks in other stances may get impatient: what is he doing? Why is he so focused on these silly bullet points?
What I am trying to do is map out the tradeoff space. I anticipate that the ideal solution will not be achievable, so I need to know where I can afford to accumulate decision debt: the downsides of the decision we’re about to make. Because ultimately, all decisions – especially the less-reversible ones – will have unpleasant side effects. Principled stance is about accepting that fact.
Principled decision-making stance typically doesn’t carry the same emotional heat as the opinionated one: there is less identity attachment to the opinion. It feels more deliberate, yet the progress toward the decisions is fairly clear and steady. When most folks in the process are in this stance, decisions are made quickly and they tend to stick.
There is another mindset that I’ve seen people assume during decision-making: the space-holding stance. When entering a decision-making process while in this mindset, I no longer care about the specifics of the decision. I want to make sure we make good decisions consistently.
This stance may seem similar to the opinionless stance, and because of that, opinionated folks often have an allergic reaction to space-holding folks being present. However, when they get a chance to engage, they quickly unflip the bozo bit, impressed by the fact that space-holding folks deeply understand the problem and can see how a particular opinion fits into the overall problem space.
Primarily, space-holding folks cultivate decision-making space. They help everyone stretch toward the principled mindset. They quickly detect and carefully fence off the opportunists. They give opinionless folks tasks of collecting the data and relieve them of the burden of defending others’ opinions. They disarm pitched battles of opinionated folks with curiosity, separating out the value of their opinions from the opinion-holder’s identity. They help principled folks create and improve upon principles.
I am not that great at holding this stance. When I try to adopt this mindset, I notice that I usually fall into the principled stance, lured by the actual problem that’s being solved. I get too caught up in the what and forget to care about the how.
In some cases, I crouch into the opinionless stance, where I hold my tongue trying to “let people speak,” becoming a barnacle. Sometimes it’s hard for me to see that “creating space” is not a passive task, but rather a sort of jam session to inspire folks to reveal and present their opinions.
While it would be ideal if everyone made decisions with this mindset, my guess is that the space-holding stance is a combination of skill and probably a unique gift that only a few people possess.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with a few folks who naturally assume this stance. It’s a marvel to see them do it. Communities of people sprout around them wherever they go. It’s like they can’t help but create places where people can discuss hard problems and come up with insightful solutions to them. If we are blessed with one in our team, hold onto those people. They are much, much more valuable than they appear.
It is only a while after they leave that we discover that our decision-making grinds to a standstill or becomes political kayfabe. We may not even realize what happened. When did everything suddenly get so political? How did that ornery expert get so downright menacing, to the point where they are shunned by the entire team? Why do our decisions feel so random and never seem to stick?
I hope this little taxonomy helps you get closer to understanding how effective decisions are made. It certainly was clarifying for me.
And oh, look. It’s probably not a surprise, but it’s another transposition of the ADT. The mindsets roughly correspond to the Opportunist, Diplomat, Expert, Achiever, and Redefining-ish stages from Bill Torbert’s developmental stage taxonomy. Hey, if it works, it works.