Tough choices: Sometimes the best decision is the least-bad decision 


Tech leaders are often faced with various bad options and forced to decide among them. Here’s how to identify the least-bad choice and move forward. 

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Image: shurkin_son/Shutterstock

In the storybook version of leadership, there’s always a right decision and a wrong one. Sometimes the right decision requires significant sacrifice or will even cost lives, but it’s always clear which path leaders should take.

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Like most things, real life is a bit more complicated than fiction. For most leaders, it’s relatively rare that decisions are simple binary affairs, where the right path is presented in clear juxtaposition to an inappropriate, unethical or otherwise downright wrong one. We might be faced with a half-dozen bad choices, or occasionally a set of wonderful options but the resources to only pursue one of them.

The set of bad options is perhaps the most difficult, especially since this leadership decision usually arrives in times of turmoil. You might have to choose between cutting a high-performing but expensive team versus a larger, lower-performing team or be forced to choose between canceling the project with significant long-term benefits versus the short-term mix in difficult economic times. These are fraught decisions, but two tools can help.
Avoid the indecision loop

When faced with a series of bad options, many leaders default to a posture of indecision. They might call it “conducting due diligence” or “fact-finding,” but these are often flowery terms applied to good old-fashioned indecision.

Rushing to judgment is undoubtedly not good leadership, but when faced with a set of bad options, many leaders, especially those in data-driven fields, default to a posture of indecision as they try to find information that makes the decision easier. If you’re requesting one more report or asking for the third or fourth slide deck to present options, you may be stuck in the indecision loop.

Your diligence might seem like good leadership, but it comes at a high cost: time. Time is a non-renewable resource and cannot be regained through any amount of money, influence or mandate. Each day that goes by while you’re stuck in an indecision loop narrows your options and has the potential to force your hand into making a suboptimal decision.

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To avoid indecision loops when faced with bad options, assess the value of time in creating the “least bad” outcome. Imagine yourself a few days or weeks into the future, and consider what you would have done differently if you had more time. You might discover that the imagined extra week or two would be so valuable that immediate action is more beneficial than carefully analyzing the various options.

Also, ask yourself if there’s a piece of information that would dramatically alter the options before you. For example, if you’re forced to make a difficult staffing decision, is there some piece of information that might eliminate the need for that decision or make it less difficult? Would further analysis discover that the decision is unnecessary? If, for instance, the decision is being forced since the company is running out of funds, it’s unlikely that additional analysis will uncover a pot of undiscovered resources.

Ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Traditional decisions usually involve some form of cost-benefit calculation where the positive outcomes of a decision are weighed against the potential costs. When faced with difficult choices, rather than searching for costs and benefits that might seem elusive or equally bad, ask “What’s the worst that could happen?” for each option.

This is not a particularly optimistic exercise, but it can be cathartic to explore the worst-case scenarios of each of your bad options and discover that even with equally bad worst-case outcomes, there may be a least-bad option.
Consider chemotherapy treatment for cancer, in which what are essentially poisons are introduced into the bloodstream to disrupt the cancer cell’s growth. The worst-case options for chemotherapy and leaving the cancer untreated are similarly bad, but the chemo presents a higher chance of recovery when combined with quick action.

By asking “What’s the worst that could happen?” you may find a least-bad decision among your otherwise indistinguishably poor choices; or like cancer treatment, you may find that one bad decision has a higher probability of a better outcome when combined with the benefit of time. This can serve as a breakout point from an indecision loop and provide a path forward.

While choosing from bad options is unpleasant, it’s a core capability for strong leaders. In difficult times, your teams will look for your guidance, and if you approach a set of bad choices with grace and the two tools mentioned above, you’ll successfully guide your teams toward the least-bad option.



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