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Avoiding Decision Making Paralysis

Avatar photo by Casey Woods, Executive Director | July 8, 2014
Avoiding Decision
Making Paralysis
Decision Making Road Signs  
Improving your organization starts with direction.


We often are asked if we record feedback from Entrepreneurs starting or expanding a business, and what businesses say "surprises" them about the business process.  Every entrepreneur is different, with varying acumen across the myriad of skills a successful entrepreneur needs to achieve lasting success.  But, the one common element that we hear from business people is they weren't prepared for the sheer volume of decisions they must make on a daily basis.  The "decision overload" can lead to a dangerous situation for management; something we call "decision paralysis".  Time continues to move and the market continues to change (rapidly), so the inability to meet challenges or fix problems because of decision fatigue can hurt a small business in innumerable ways.  Below are some ways you can create better systems to decrease "menial" decisions and improve your ability to reason through the innumerable decisions a modern manager must make (say that five times fast) on any given business day.


Decision making is a process.  Identifying the problem, researching an issue, hypothesizing a solution, communicating the proposed solution to receive pre-implementation feedback (some call this "water proofing"), declaring benchmarks to determine success, implementing the solution and then determining the effectiveness of the solution post-implementation.  We often conduct this process without even thinking about it for "easy" decisions.  But, more complex issues require more detailed examination of the decision making process.


Realize that not making a decision still commits your organization to a particular path.- Even when you think you are standing still, you are moving (usually backwards).  The example we use to illustrate that on a human scale is aMagic 8 Ball  person hanging out on the equator for a day can stand in the "same place" without feeling like they moved at all, but earth is spinning at around 1,000 mph, our planet moves around the sun at about 66,700 mph and the milky way galaxy moves through space at around 1,342,161 mph.  So, if you just "hung out" in the "same place" for 24 hours, you've actually moved almost 34 million miles.  Business can feel the same way.  Avoiding decisions doesn't mean that everything stops around you, it simply means that you are falling further behind.


Standardize areas that require frequent, similar decisions made on a regular basis.- Sometimes the "little" decisions are the ones that stress out business owners the most.  Things like taking out trash and cleaning windows can pile up and produce frustration and contempt.  For standard items, purchase a white board and make a list of jobs that must be completed on a daily, weekly or monthly basis and have staff sign up (or at least make sure they are getting done).  Checking items off a list can lead to a sense of accomplishment and it makes those around you accountable for completing a task without constant direction.


Understand that lack of leadership is not an option for successful businesses.- People often want success, but they don't always want to do theBoss Mugwork to achieve success.  Leadership is work.  Leadership often requires that you work "shoulder to shoulder" with those around you to earn/keep their respect.  If you don't want to lead people, long term success will be difficult.  Most people want to please their business leaders, but a lack of leadership simply creates frustration amongst followers over time.


Identify the real basis for the problem.- This sounds simple, but identifying "cause" often makes us take actions that we may find uncomfortable.  Less customers walking through the door may make a business contact customers for feedback, and that feedback could result in changes (if you want to maintain customers).  Are you not attracting high quality employees?  Maybe it's a function of your training program, pay scale, interviewing skills, hours or incentives.  Do people not know who you are (still)?  A lack of effective company advertising, disheveled marketing, unkempt branding, interactive events or incentives for existing happy customers to produce positive "word of mouth" could be an issue.  By thinking through problems critically, you can identify their basis and work to solve issues over time.


Understand the "low hanging fruit" model of problem solving-  Most businesses can't wave a magic wand and increase their inflows byDecision Process  $1,000,000. You need to determine simple actions to solve for problems, implement those actions and then grow your model to solve for more complex problems.  In "low hanging fruit" models, we pick the low hanging fruit and then grab a ladder to pick "more difficult" fruit and then get a taller ladder as our "fruit" gets more difficult to reach.  Start small and build your capacity for problem solving and implementation. 


Communicate your mission/vision, and make your team a part of executing your goals.- If people don't know what you are about, they can't help execute your vision.  Sometimes businesses are overwhelmed by the amount of decisions they are asked to make because staff doesn't understand the basis for the decisions.  Without a an understanding of the "why" behind decisions, staff will ask questions about things that some would consider menial because they can't figure out the decision making culture.  Some simple discussions explaining your values system, and tying that system to decision making by using examples, can create a more organic work environment.  Managers must observe employees and offer feedback, but this system should decrease the quantity of decisions made.


"Because that's the way it's always been done" is not an acceptable answer.- Remember how frustrated you would get as a child when a parent would answer a question with "because I said so"?  Well, "that's the way it's always been done" is the business equivalent of that statement.  The world is changing, doing things a certain way simply out of a sense of tradition instead of a sense of measurable success almost guarantees failure over time.  The question shouldn't be "why change?", the question should be "why not improve?"  If an action can't be justified with a reasonable explanation, it might be time to reflect on the validity of the action.  Tradition cannot become a justification for inaction.  You must maintain a positive culture and ensure that decisions work towards supporting your goals, but we often defend the indefensible or avoid change with a "tradition" defense.


Positive change can build excitement, or rid you of dead weight.- ManyLearning to make Decisionsyears ago, I was presented with a simple problem.  People were walking into a store front for an appointment, but the people they needed to talk to were at a "hidden" desk.  Because staff wasn't in an appropriate sight line, it resulted in a frustrating and bumbling scenario where one person would have to "find someone" to help an individual while they waited, creating frustration and making the organization look disorganized.  The solution seemed simple: rearrange the section so the check in desk was more visible.  The reaction was complex.  Some didn't want to change things, they didn't want to be "bothered" and they didn't understand the reasoning behind the reconfiguration.  After explaining that customer service was the highest priority, and customers were reacting badly to a disorganized configuration, most (but not all) adapted to the change.  Those that adapted embraced change as a proactive way to solve problems while emphasizing organizational values.  Those that resisted change were no longer with the organization.  That's not necessarily a bad thing.  People that don't have organizational "buy in" can cost a business more than their presence helps.


Stay consistent in your approach- Identify, communicate, implement and measure.  By creating a process within your organizational decision making, you can create a sense of stability through changes.  When managers makeSuccess and Failure  decisions haphazardly, or by utilizing a values system that people don't understand, it can cause frustration and decrease organizational morale.  I've sometimes equated inconsistent decision making with the movie "Up".  Within the Pixar film, talking dogs participate in highly focused missions until they see a "SQUIRREL!", and then they are off on a wildly different path.  Don't get distracted by bright shinny objects and stay consistent.  Your measured approach will build trust and respect over the long term.


Others can act as a sounding board, but the decisions made belong to you.- It's good to get different perspectives on issues, but when people must ask about their target market or their place within the market, it is generally a symptom of a larger problem.  The question of "who am I" is fundamental to business success, and must be answered by the individual business or organization.  You cannot successfully be all things to all people; it is a marketing impossibility.  You cannot expect to look to competitors to be "what they are not" as an organizational development strategy.  At the end of the day, you have to make decisions based on your values and culture.  Bounce ideas off of people to distill your concepts into something that can be easily understood, but you must be who you are.


The exciting part of modern business and organizational development isMain Street Logo that we can move rapidly to meet the challenges and opportunities presented in an ever changing market.  The same thing that makes modern development exciting, also makes it scary.  In conservative areas, we don't want to make mistakes, but mistakes are inevitable.  No one is perfect.  The important thing to remember is that by consistently adapting to achieve your business or organizational goals, you can succeed long term.  Staying stagnant often means suffering a slow and steady decline.  In Kansas, we should subscribe to the "Oz" method of management: the realization that it takes brains, heart and courage to make the decisions necessary to move your organization forward, but tapping your heals together won't magically solve your problems. 

About the Author

Casey Woods, Executive Director

Before accepting the director position in March of 2009, Casey worked in both retail and agricultural jobs in the family businesses. A lifelong resident of the Emporia Area, Casey was a ten year volunteer for Emporia Main Street prior to his appointment as director. During that time he served as the board president and chair of the Economic Vitality Committee.

Casey also serves as a partner in PlaceMakers, LLC, a consulting firm that routinely works with both large and small communities, and their businesses, to promote sustainable economic growth through community and economic development practices. Casey consults with businesses, organizations and communities to understand their market capacity and fill vacant spaces. He has been involved in two projects that included crowdfunding as a part of their overall business funding strategies, Radius Brewing and Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe.


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