I’m working on a new keynote speech and a new book. To accelerate the process, I enrolled in a 4-session, 16-day public speaking program to hone the big idea, write a compelling speech, and learn how to deliver the speech in a way that will knock your socks off. The mantra of the program’s instructor is, “Choose early and often.*” By the end of Day 4, I knew why he emphasized this so much. Students who made choices (and followed through on them) progressed amazingly fast. I heard dramatically better ideas from these people on Day 4 than on Day 1. In contrast, those that got stuck at some point, unwilling to fully commit to one idea or reluctant to let go of another, made little progress by the end of the first four days.

Why am I telling you any of this? Well…While I’m in the midst of this course, I’m working with three different executive teams, each struggling at a different stage of decision making. Reflecting on what I’ve learned about how liberating it is to choose early and often, I realized the different spots at which these teams were stuck. One has failed to define what they need to do. One has failed to move from what to so what to clarify how the big decisions affect a series of smaller ones. One has failed to commit to the now what and hasn’t thrown their weight behind implementing the decision. Where does your team get stuck in decision making?

Step 1: What?

Too often, teams fail to make the big decisions that their businesses require. How many priorities do you have in your business? To what extent do those priorities conflict with one another? One retail team we’re working with was expecting their employees to do three different things at the moment the customer is checking out. This was a ridiculous request, but no leader at any level had made a call about which one was more important. That meant the decision was left to the cashier to decide.

If you have multiple competing priorities and you haven’t articulated which one trumps, then you’ve failed at the very first stage of decision making. Your team will feel like I felt when I was carrying two speech ideas at the same time—divided, diluted, and distracted. It’s time to make a call: cull your priorities to only the most critical and put even that abbreviated list in order.

Step 2: So What?

Not all teams are struggling to decide what to do. Many teams do the hard work of making the important strategic choices and then stall when they have to translate those high-level decisions into operational plans. A second team we’re working with spent 6 months agonizing over the right strategy for their distressed business. They made excruciating but important calls about the future of the business. And then they stopped.  They haven’t progressed into the next wave of decision making where they figure out how the strategic decisions come to life in the business. They haven’t figured out what to do in the situations where the right strategic calls aren’t affordable in the short term. Although their thinking is significantly ahead of the retail team, the business is no further ahead because the implications of the decisions are unknown.

Once you make the tough calls about what is and isn’t important, you need to immediately ask, “So, what does that mean for x, y, and z?”

Step 3: Now What?

Finally, some teams do all the work of making the tough calls and carrying those decisions through into clear plans only to fall down in their commitment to following through. These teams seem to be intimidated or afraid of the decisions they’ve made. As a result, they don’t do what it takes to deliver on the plans. In some cases, that means allowing a discontinued program to limp along with scavenged resources. In other cases, it’s starving an important project with what it needs to succeed. In some ways, this is the most frustrating scenario for me because the team has done so much of the work but lacks the courage of their convictions to bring their decisions to life.

It won’t take long for you to see a marked difference in results. Your choices, translated into the next layer of operational decisions, then invested in with energy and resources will get traction like you haven’t seen before. You’ll see how liberating it is when you choose early and often.


*Thanks to Michael Port of Heroic Public Speaking for “choose early and often.”


Further Reading

9 Easy Ways to Improve Decision Making on Your Team

Fast or Agile: Which are You Really Looking For?

How to Go Faster