Pivotal Decision Making
By Francie Dalton
decision is pivotal if any of the following is true:
significant degree of risk, exposure or uncertainty surrounds
the decision. Failure in some form is a distinct possibility.
form of change will follow, with the decision itself being a
catalyst for or a precursor to some set of "next steps".
Radial impacts will ensue from the decision, affecting one or
more of the following: the responsibilities or careers of
individuals, organizational structure or operations, internal
policy, or your reputation as a leader.
of the choices attendant to the decision includes a win/win with
all options having some advantage. Instead, pivotal decisions
are so because they are either win/lose, with considerable
distance between the best possible and worst possible outcomes;
or lose/lose, forcing a choice between two or more equally
manage pivotal decisions shapes you and your career; shapes how
others view you and the quality of your leadership; reveals your
core values, and as a result, sets precedent, shaping the culture of
to recognize the special nature of pivotal decisions increases the
likelihood that your decisions will be reactionary and/or
perfunctory, generating unintended and complicating consequences
that are more severe, harder to endure, more expensive to remediate,
and harder to recover from. The fact that you did not intend the
consequences is not mitigating; the fact that you are not sensitive
to any resulting negative perceptions is not insulating. Instead,
primary among the negative outcomes of mishandled pivotal decisions
is an erosion of the credibility of your leadership - something
that's virtually impossible to rebuild.
frequently cited circumstances exemplifying the need for pivotal
decisions include: leadership transitions or internal
re-structuring; threatened loss of key staff at crucial times;
mission-relevant requests from key constituents that would cause
significant cost over-runs, delays, or substantial re-work; and, of
course, poisonous, divisive, alienating behaviors from those whose
results or political connections are crucial to the organization.
time to confront pivotal decisions is before you have to. However,
you do have two alternatives: (a) You can wait for them to burst
upon you without warning and then do your best to wing it; or, (b)
you can just accept that your organization will be in a perpetual
state of damage control as you struggle to mitigate the results of
unanticipated pivotal decisions. Impractical as it may initially
seem, it really is possible to anticipate pivotal decisions, to
prepare for them in advance, and to lead through them, virtually,
before they ever happen. Here's a five-step process that will help
you do so.
Imagine the toughest business scenarios you might face; reasonably
predictable dilemmas in which you would be highly vulnerable. Think
of all that you take for granted managerially, and imagine losing
it. Consider that about which you are most certain, and think of
what would happen if that certainty proved unfounded. Also included
here might be a significant difference of opinion between you and
your boss regarding a major initiative; a particularly difficult
associate, etc. Work to identify at least 2 potentially calamitous
Identify the indicators likely to precede each scenario. What
specific occurrences would indicate that the scenario is indeed
becoming imminent? Listing these will increase the probability that
you'll recognize the indicators if and when they actually occur,
especially those you're predisposed not to recognize due to your own
biases or blind spots.
through each scenario, one at a time, as though you were really
facing the difficulty. What are your options and the predictable
consequences of each option? Which option would you choose? Why?
Be sure you can clearly articulate your reasons for choosing a
particular option. Fluency here will help you speak with a
conviction adequate to be persuasive with key audiences.
important to visualize the implementation of your chosen option.
If you have trouble here, if you can't really see yourself
implementing the decisions you've concluded are the correct ones, if
it's your modus operandi to duck or delay the toughest decisions,
then perhaps you should give up your leadership role. If such
decisions cause you emotional anguish, if you rail against having to
make them, realize that's exactly the kind of decision senior
executives should be making, and that you're not alone in your
discomfiture. But one of the luxuries you have to surrender once
you've moved into the executive ranks is the luxury of behaving the
way you feel. No honorable executive relishes the implementation of
decisions that will be painful to others, but your feelings cannot
be the determinant for taking action.
Identify what's thematic about your decision making. The criteria
you use to make pivotal decisions are likely to be consistent over
time. For example, are you consistently benevolent? If so, you're
likely to have earned an organization of mediocre performers. Is it
your pattern to be harsh? If so, you're likely to have earned
resentment of your leadership. Is your modus operandi to "duck" all
the incendiary issues? If so, you're likely to have earned a lack
of respect for your leadership. Understand that whatever pattern
you've established, it's already visible, and is speaking volumes to
key audiences. So take some time to discern what your pattern
indicates about the style and quality of your leadership, and what
the impact of this pattern is on your organization. Then determine
what adjustments, if any, you need to make.
Remember: pivotal decisions are frequently necessitated by that
which should have been anticipated in the first place. Learning how
to anticipate pivotal decisions will deliver three tremendously
useful outcomes to you: 1: the process trains your brain to
recognize precursors; 2: this then accelerates your ability to
act; and perhaps most importantly, 3: anticipating pivotal
decisions equips you to apply preventive measures instead of
slugging your way through damage control measures.
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