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A Structured Approach to Making Complex Decisions

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

The main cause of feeling stuck or making bad decisions is incomplete information. The Six Cs (outlined in my previous article) helps to identify that information, but a structured decision-making process can also help. I often use the seven-step process outlined below with my clients to help them to avoid overlooking important factors.

A cartoon depiction of two hands holding an extremely convoluted flow diagram depicting a complicated process
Your decision-making process should be clear and reduce confusion

In this article I've included a selection of other techniques, tools and methods that I use from time to time. These are just examples that come to mind. The important thing is to use your judgement and select tools appropriately, according to the nature and scale of the decision in front of you. Don't use the proverbial sledgehammer to crack your nut.

1) Who? - It is important to involve the right people in the decision-making process. If this is a personal decision, it may seem that that nobody else needs to be included, but it's worth asking yourself whether your decision will affect anyone else and whether you may need someone's support to implement your decision. If so, it may be useful to include them in the process and try to take on board what they say.

A still from the cult Netflix series, ‘Stranger Things’, in which the central group of young characters have gathered together to decide their plan of action
Even if you're not in a gang, you may need to involve others in the decision

In a business context it may be helpful to conduct a Stakeholder Analysis to identify who needs to input into or share the decision and who may need to be informed when you've decided. The Vroom-Yetton Decision Model is a useful way to consider who to involve and consult in your decision given the specific constraints of your situation. You can either gather input from all the stakeholders simultaneously or use the Stepladder Technique to manage the process of gradually adding new inputs into your deliberation.

2) Clarify - It's important that you understand the situation fully and that you're clear about the decision question that you're answering. The Five Whys or other forms of Root Cause Analysis can help you to ensure you're focusing on the right question. Be careful not to define your decision in a way that excludes possible options before you have explored them. Also important at this stage is to consider your broader goals and how this decision may relate to them. A particular feature of my coaching is that I believe that understanding how you feel and how you may want to feel in the future often holds the keys to setting congruent goals and making decisions that you won't regret. I use a variety of exercises to clarify these 'feeling' goals.

You should also articulate why you're taking the decision now and any criteria that a successful decision needs to, or would ideally, fulfil.

3) Options - I've previously written about the idea of Overchoice and the Paradox of Choice, where more options can cause overwhelm and reduce satisfaction, so it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that you should increase the number of options you're choosing from, but that is indeed what I'm suggesting. The first step is to be clear about what your options seem to be, then ask 'what other options do I have?'. If you can't think of one, I would ask 'if you did have another option what might it be?' And then 'what else?' and continue to ask 'what else?' until you have generated as many other options as possible. 'Reverse Brainstorming' is another useful technique for generating ideas, while 'Round-Robin Brainstorming' works well for groups. Once you have exhausted this process, select all of the options that may be worth exploring further.

4) Evaluate - Once you have a defined set of options to choose between, you need to evaluate the viability, risks, costs, benefits, opportunities and implications of each of your alternatives. It's important during this stage to consider your broader goals (from stage 2) so that the immediate decision can be judged according to how it relates to these as well as being decided on its own terms - refer back to the criteria you set in step 2.

I work with clients to estimate the potential impact and likelihood of the different risks and opportunities. In the absence of coaching you could use Starbursting or a similar method to generate useful questions.

A six-pointed star with the 'issue for brainstorming' at the centre. Each point of the star is labeled with a different question: Who?; What?; Where?; Why?; When?; and How?
Starbursting is one method to generate useful and relevant questions

I usually talk to my clients about what resources they may have available and whether these are likely to be sufficient, and if not, where they might access additional resources. A useful question in this context is 'what might prevent you from implementing this decision?'

We may also consider how the option might seem more or less attractive across different timescales: the short, medium and long term.

5) Decide - If one of your options stands out as the right choice for you, then this step is simple. However, it's important to recognise that in many situations you won't achieve perfect information to unequivocally make the 'right' decision. Instead you may have to accept that more than one option might be similarly 'correct' and that you won't be able to know for sure in advance which option will maximise your outcomes. Sometimes delaying a decision can be a good option, but usually an imperfect decision will be better than no decision or delaying further. In other words, doing nothing is a choice in itself and is likely to have costs attached to it. Instead, you may have to make the best decision you can with the information and resources you have at the time you're making the decision.

If you find yourself with several options, which are either very similar or completely different, it can feel difficult to arrive at a decision:

  • Similar options can be difficult to choose between because they lack clear differentiators. Marketers work hard to communicate USPs and clear benefits to solve this exact problem for consumers struggling to differentiate between products and services. It's great if you can recognise that this is what is causing you to feel stuck, as you may be able to free yourself with the realisation that the decision itself won't change much, as all options are so similar. In other words, if you can't find significant differences then 'pick any of them because it doesn't make a difference'.

  • Dissimilar options can be so different from each other that comparing benefits doesn't work. For example, one client had to choose between a new job offer in an exciting role with a pay increase and the counter offer from her employer of a 6-month placement in Latin America. Both were dream opportunities for her but in totally different ways.

There are a number of tools that I share with my clients for deciding between options. One of the most effective methods is to eliminate choices, one-by-one if necessary, until you're left with just two options. You can rest assured that by reducing your options down to two you're extremely unlikely to have eliminated the best option and be left with two vastly inferior options.

How Do You Want To Feel?
I place enormous value in my coaching on the idea of 'Feeling-based' goals and decisions, which is not quite the same as 'gut' instinct (below). Experience has shown me that life satisfaction is often less based on what you're doing, where you live or whom you're in a relationship with than on how you feel when you're doing it, living somewhere or spending time with someone. It can be useful consciously to think about how you've felt in the past in relevant situations, how you feel in the present and how you may want to feel in the future. This also provides a way of measuring the success of your decision in the future.

Another method I often use is a variation of a Paired Comparison Analysis, which helps to identify which criteria should carry the most weight in your decision-making. At times we may also use a Decision Matrix Analysis, which sounds scarier and more complicated than it actually is!

'Gut' Instinct
Finally, I support clients to use their gut (also known as heart or deep brain) to test out the different options. Gut instinct is not a whimsical approach to making decisions. The Nobel Prize-winning Economist Daniel Kahneman calls this instinctive thinking 'System 1' or 'Fast' thinking. Your brain is continuously comparing your present situation with previous situations you've encountered. When you access your 'gut' you're actually accessing the supercomputer that is your subconscious and calculating how this present dilemma relates to the life experience you've accumulated since childhood.

6) Check - I understand that after pulling out most of your hair through a difficult decision-making process, and having finally arrived at a decision, the last thing you want to ask is 'Have I made the right decision?'

In the movie Scream 2, Cici (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) is on the phone with the serial killer 'Ghost Face' who has told her he is in her house. She's at the bottom of her staircase after hearing a noise upstairs and is preparing to ascend the stairs to investigate.
Are you sure you want to investigate the creepy sound coming from upstairs? It's not too late to change your mind!

You might also assume that, as a Coach, I would be delighted when one of my clients makes a decision, and that I'd be happy to move on quickly to the next topic, but my role isn't to be happy for my client; my role is to challenge them and ensure they undertake a coherent thinking process, which means asking that dreaded question. Even if you want to skip this step, please don't.

Instead, take the opportunity to double-check how you reached your decision and how it relates to your broader goals. A little extra time invested at this stage will either save you from a flawed decision or increase your confidence moving forward. Being clear about how you reached your decision can also improve your decision-making skills for the future and help you to communicate to others how and why you reached your decision.

The image depicts the ‘Ladder of Inference’ model using an outline of a human head with a ladder running through it vertically as if representing the thinking process. Each rung of the ladder depicts a different step in the process, from bottom to top: 1) Observable Data and Experiences; 2) I select data from what I observe; 3) I add meanings (cultural and personal); 4) I make assumptions based on the meanings I added; 5) I draw conclusions; 6) I adopt beliefs about the world; and 7) I take actions based my beliefs. An arrow from step 6 to step 2 shows that the new beliefs you form in step 6 then inform the data that you select.
The Ladder of Inference Model (Chris Argyris)

I use several different models and methods to support clients to check their decision, depending on the person and the situation.

The Ladder of Inference model, developed by organisational psychologist Chris Argyris, depicts how your belief system informs how you perceive and interpret the world and vice versa. I use it to help clients identify any selective thinking, assumptions and beliefs disguised as facts. I also like to check for common psychological biases.

Throughout this process your gut will also be talking to you, so listen out for any warnings it might be expressing..

7) Communicate & Implement with Confidence - You can now move forward with confidence. Where appropriate, you might identify future waypoints to check that you're on course and any steps you need to take to mitigate risks or maximise opportunities. You can communicate your decision to those involved in or affected by it. Step 6 should have helped you to be clear about exactly what you've decided, why and how you reached your decision. Depending on the circumstances it may also be useful to share the risks and costs associated with your decision as well as the benefits and opportunities. Don't hesitate to ask people for help implementing where needed and take on board any new information that you haven't previously considered.

Post-decision Evaluation

Some of my clients, particularly organisations, like to document decisions and the decision-making process. Some of them build in a Review process to evaluate the effectiveness of the decision with the benefit of data and hindsight.

If you're interested in finding out more about how my coaching can help you to improve your decision-making and/or form better habits, then please SEND ME A MESSAGE about your situation. Alternatively go ahead and BOOK THE 'TASTER' SESSION (on the 'Get Started' page).

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