Robust decision-making

Here’s the thing about decision-making. It’s not always about making a decision. Except when it is.

Knowing when not to make a particular decision is not about doing nothing. Sometimes it’s saying, you know what, we’ll plant a few seeds and see what happens. Or experiment a bit. Or set a time to make the decision later.

But sometimes that’s just driven by fear, or inertia, or a desire to avoid conflict.

So, how do we know the difference?

Not Making A Decision: Itself A Decision

Associations make decisions all the time, but we have all had experiences where decisions are not made. This might be a source of frustration, but it can also be very smart.

Deferring decisions is often about setting the stage, laying the foundation, making a small investment now so you have the option to make a bigger investment later. The option to do something later has real value.

In a good process, it’s a lot more sophisticated than just kicking the can down the road.

There are a lot of ways not to make a decision, and reasons to pick each:

  • Decide halfway. Decide to pilot, test, experiment. Plant some seeds and see what grows. Do this when something holds some promise, but you need to prove it out before you can decide what to do about it.
  • Decide to decide later – but make it crystal clear what milestone triggers the decision, and what you need to do in the meantime. (Maybe some of the above.) This can work well if it’s is an evolving or nebulous issue, and more information will lead to a better outcome.
  • Decide on a smaller thing. This only works if the issue can be chunked out, and if decisions made on sub-topics won’t preclude or constrain other options. If it’s on the same topic a small decision might feel like it is addressing the big issue, when maybe it really doesn’t – this is an outcome you want to avoid.
  • Decide to answer a different question. You may be tasked with developing, say, a member engagement strategy. If you find out in that process that your member database is falling over in a heap of crappy data and uncorked privacy risks, it’s fine to decide to deal with that, and figure out member engagement later on.

What you don’t want to do with not making a decision is to turn it into something undiscussable or even toxic, so that nobody wants to even talk about it, let alone make the decision. And you certainly don’t want it to just drift on indefinitely.

OK, Time To Make A Real Decision

You don’t always need to pull a big trigger, sure.

But sometimes you do. You need to set a course and head in a direction. When is a strategic decision really required?

  • When you see a window of opportunity closing.
  • If your sustainability is at risk.
  • If you need to make an announcement and stake a claim, to head off your competition.
  • Because you need to make a significant single investment, e.g. in an IT solution, or a strategic alliance, and you’ve got the information you need.
  • When there’s an external deadline, such as the end of a lease, legislation implementation, expiration of a contract. (This one is often the most obvious and easiest to get to the point of actual decision.)

One thing that has to be both challenged and embraced in decision-making is the lack of hard data on which to base decisions. It’s critical to ask what information is required to make a particular decision; and to recognize that perfect data is never going to be available.

Face Decision-Making Head-On

The point of these distinctions is not to reward the kind of pointless waffling that eats up so much energy, goodwill, and meeting time.

Instead, the point is to reduce the wear and tear on the decision-makers. It’s legitimately hard to make decisions. It’s cognitively draining. In associations, where decision-makers are often volunteers, they risk professional and social risks in making adverse decisions. Or staff risk being seen as insufficiently consultative if they make decisions.

But we can’t pretend we won’t make serious decisions, ever. We can’t pretend the decision not to make a decision, isn’t in itself a decision!

If you’d like to use our tactical planning approach to help you make decisions, you can download our latest white paper, Turning Strategy Into Action: Tactical Planning for Associations, here. If you’d like to talk about how we can help you with decision-making, please get in touch.

Photo by Jean-Frederic Fortier, via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Contact us at or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


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