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Decision Making: It's Not What You Think

Renowned management thinker Henry Mintzberg and business professor Frances Westley zero in on three ways the best managers make decisions. To hone their decision-making skills, business leaders can start by admitting that real-world decisions are not always made through logical steps -- and that often they shouldn't be.

Most managers believe they make decisions by using analysis. Define the problem, they say, diagnose its causes, design possible solutions, choose and, finally, implement the choice. But, in reality, they may make their best decisions in some other way -- for example, after a flash of intuition or by trying out several things and keeping what works. In fact, the authors show that a focus on "thinking first" before choosing may interfere with a deep understanding of the issues dividing people and prevent a good decision.

A decision-making approach the authors call "seeing first" -- literally creating a picture with others in order to see everyone's concerns -- can surface differences better than analysis and can force a genuine consensus. "Doing first" -- going ahead with an action in order to learn -- is the third approach. Each route is best under particular circumstances.

"Thinking first" works best when the issue is clear, data is reliable, the context is structured, thoughts can be pinned down and discipline can be applied -- for example, in an established production process. "Seeing first" works best when many elements must be combined into creative solutions, commitment to those solutions is key and communication across boundaries is essential -- for example, in new-product development. "Doing first" works best when the situation is novel and confusing, when complicated specifications might get in the way and a few simple relationship rules could help people move forward -- for example, when companies face a disruptive technology.

If managers learn when to apply each approach, they can increase their effectiveness and give their companies the competitive edge required in uncertain times.

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