The Best Decision-Making Advice I Ever Received

The Best Decision-Making Advice I Ever Received

Four years ago, I walked into a massive ballroom at the Orlando World Center Marriott for an afternoon teaching with John Maxwell. It was right after lunch and the enormous meeting room was freezing cold. I was clinging to a paper coffee cup to keep warm - and to fend off an afternoon nap. Thinking back on it now, I certainly didn't know that the lessons Maxwell shared in the next hour would stick with me for years to come.

Before we get to the specific advice, think back on a big decision you made in the last year. Maybe a few examples come to mind. Perhaps someone else's decision comes to mind - a decision handed down from leadership, or a decision made by your favorite sports franchise to trade a player, change systems, or fire a coach. Think back to how you felt in the days leading up to that decision, and remember what came next. Remember the feelings that followed the decision, and the steps that you or someone else took as a result. Most importantly, take a moment to reflect on the outcome(s) of each decision that comes to mind.

Okay, do you have a few in mind? Great! Let's get to the lesson I learned that day in Orlando.

That lesson? Brace yourself.


"Decision-making is overrated."
John Maxwell


You read that right. Decision-making is overrated. I still remember the chuckle that went up in the room when John Maxwell - the legend himself, at an event bearing his name, in a room full of 5,000 professional leadership coaches - spread his arms wide and proclaimed from the stage, "The first thing you need to know about decision-making is that decision-making is overrated!"

If you were surprised to read that, you're in good company. I certainly raised an eyebrow when I heard John share that from the stage that day. Everything I knew about leadership told me to place a high value on decision-making. Amazon has more than 50,000 books on decision-making in its library. Google's Project Oxygen identified decision-making as a top-ten quality of a strong manager. So how can decision-making be underrated? Let's unpack this idea further to make some sense of this surprising quote.

Decision-making is overrated. Decision management is underrated.
Here's the thing about decision-making: everyone makes bad decisions. Everyone. Steve Jobs promoted numerous products that ultimately failed. Warren Buffett missed out on investing in Amazon. Your favorite sports team has probably overpaid a big-name player at some point (mine certainly has).

We have to stop thinking about decisions as a single point in time. It's a natural tendency - we place a lot of weight on making a big decision. We agonize over which choice to make, and in many cases we announce our decision with great pomp and circumstance.

We need to shift our perspective to emphasize what comes after the decision. This was the breakthrough moment of clarity that hit me on that day in Orlando. The best decision-makers aren't the best because they make good decisions. They are the best at managing their decisions. They have a knack for working through all of the follow-up steps that come after a decision is made.

Good decisions become bad decisions if not managed properly.
Have you ever seen a decision go bad? Even though you made the right decision in the moment, these decisions look worse with the benefit of hindsight.

Allow me to offer this example: A few years ago I signed up to run a 10K race with some friends. I hadn't really been running for the last few years, so I decided to get some new running shoes to prepare. A quick trip to the local specialty running store netted me a brand-new pair of Brooks running shoes. The clerk suggested special insoles to support my arches, and I decided it would be wise to make sure these new shoes were properly fitted to my very specific feet.

Fast-forward to today. I ran that 10K and a couple of other 5K races, but running hasn't exactly become a passion of mine. My brand-new Brooks shoes are still on my shelf, fancy insoles and all, with just over 70 lifetime miles logged on them. Upon review, the series of decisions looked like:

  1. Deciding to run in a 10K was a good decision at the time.
  2. Buying new running shoes was a good decision at the time.
  3. Opting for the recommended insoles was a good decision at the time.

Each of these choices made sense at the time they were made. However, there is another choice not listed above: choosing not to use the new shoes and upgraded insoles in the ensuing months and years. This fourth decision (which is really a series of ongoing decisions over time), undermines the first three. I don't feel bad about making those first three decisions - they were right for me at the time - but I recognize that those decisions have reduced impact because they were not managed and maintained over time. 

It is never too late to quit on a bad decision.
The absolute worst form of decision management is to stick with a bad decision after you know it was the wrong choice. Once it becomes apparent that a past decision is no longer serving you or someone else, you have exactly one option: STOP! Do not fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy, throwing more time, energy, and resources after a mistake.

The power in this lesson, and the reason it still echoes in my head, comes from learning how to manage decisions after they have been made. Good habits are essentially good decisions managed well. No good decision is a single choice - it's the sum of small decisions made time and time again. So, the next time you face a major decision, rest easy knowing that this single decision won't make or break anything for you - it's the follow-up steps that determine your success.


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