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Law Practice Magazine

The Leadership Issue

Effective Decision-Making: How to Stop Kicking the Can Down the Road

Andrew N Elowitt


  • Here are some of the most common ways we hinder our ability to make timely and effective decisions and, more importantly, some of the best ways to get unstuck.
Effective Decision-Making: How to Stop Kicking the Can Down the Road

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We’ve all been there at one time or another: Stuck. Procrastinating. Unable to decide. Not sure what’s the right answer, the right decision, the right course of action. Tough decisions are part of human experience, from Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be?” to The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Lawyers’ decisions are usually more mundane, but often no less challenging.

If we were to observe the number of decisions we make each day as practicing attorneys, we’d quickly lose count. We make most decisions easily, almost automatically; but with others we struggle, ruminate, revisit and delay. Caught in a decision-making loop, the proverbial can gets kicked down the road ... again and again and again. Occasionally it’s sensible to delay deciding. We may be waiting for input from others or for external conditions to change.

But most of the time, delaying or avoiding making decisions is not a good strategy—opportunities are lost and problems fester and grow out of control. Not deciding is, after all, a passive decision to allow things to remain the same.

Although it may at first seem counterintuitive, when we find ourselves stuck, it’s useful to deliberately pause, step away from thinking about the immediate decision and instead reflect on why we’re having difficulties. (Showers and long walks seem to be the most common places people do this.) When we do pause, we often discover that the way we’re framing and thinking about a decision—our tacit beliefs, assumptions and mindsets—is what’s contributing to our difficulties.

Here are some of the most common ways we hinder our ability to make timely and effective decisions and, more importantly, some of the best ways to get unstuck and stop kicking the can down the road.

1. We view decision-making as a purely cognitive and analytical process.

In other words, we ignore or minimize the vital role our emotions play in making decisions. Our emotions and intuition are critical in the most seemingly objective and analytical activities: Researchers have found that the regions of our brains associated with emotions are extremely active even when we’re solving math problems!

Decisions where there are clear answers and choices are of course easier to make. We move faster when we can frame our options in simple binary terms: right or left, yes or no, black or white. But in the real world, so many of our decisions—especially the tough ones—involve trade-offs, dilemmas and shades of gray. We need to weigh alternatives, prioritize what is most important, and consider who may end up the winners and losers— three activities that defy being reduced to a purely cognitive approach.

When we’re kicking the can down the road, it’s a good bet our emotions are playing a key role in our being stuck. Tuning into them can get us moving. And even if we don’t or can’t access those feelings, they will still play a role in our final decision. As an illustration, think back to school years when a paper was due. Many of us would struggle with picking a topic, researching it or starting to write. As our deadline neared, anxiety and fears of not getting it completed on time would grow to the point where we could finally make decisions. Fears of missing deadlines are a familiar part of the constant sense of urgency that all lawyers experience. We rely on our emotions to be productive and meet clients’ expectations.

2. We take too much time searching for the “perfect” decision.

It’s laudable that as lawyers we constantly search for the very best answers, solutions and decisions for both our clients and ourselves. But as the old saying goes, sometimes best can be the enemy of better (and the enemy of timely). People often delay deciding while they are searching for the perfect option and ignoring ones that are clearly good enough. When time and information are short (as they often are in the fast-moving world of law practice today), satisficing rather than optimizing is a necessity. We need to first accept that we may never have perfect or complete information and then ask, “How much information will be enough to allow me to decide and act?”

Even with ample information, we can fall into the trap of repeatedly analyzing it, searching for guidance toward the perfect decision. Paralysis by analysis results and we’re stuck—again the can rolls on. It’s important to develop a sense of when our analysis has reached a point where it—in addition to our information—is good enough. As you can imagine, settling for good enough can be extremely difficult for those of us who have perfectionist tendencies.

Tacitly assuming that all our decisions are final and unalterable also contributes to our being stuck. Events and conditions change in fluid situations, sometimes making what was once a good decision in retrospect appear like a poor one. Wanting to avoid making a bad decision, we can get so consumed in predicting and anticipating changes that we waste time and resources as we delay our decisions. To avoid these kinds of impasses, it’s helpful to realize that many of our decisions can be modified or corrected to fit changing circumstances. It’s sensible and expedient to settle on one option, while also having backup and contingent plans.

3. We treat decision-making as an individual activity.

Very few of the decisions we make affect only us. Yet even when our decisions will impact others, we often assume that it’s solely on us to come up with the right solution or answer. Lawyers, who as a profession show higher levels of autonomous personality traits than the general population, may be more prone to assuming this. Rather than being stuck trying to decide in isolation, it’s worth considering whether we need input or approval from someone else, and whether we’re even the right person to be making the decision. Help and perspective from others often are the keys to help us stop kicking the can down the road. The following heuristic based on the acronym DIANA is a useful tool for seeing the larger context of our decisions, while improving collaboration and implementation across our firms.

The above three tips for when we’re stuck deciding—paying attention to our emotions, recognizing when “good enough” is good enough and involving other people—help us kick cans down the road less frequently and not as far. When we finally decide and bend down to pick up that can we’ve grown accustomed to kicking, remember the sagely advice of Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Sometimes the most perplexing decisions aren’t a matter of going right or left, but are as simple as finding an unexpected kitchen utensil on the ground. Bend over. Pick up that can. And the fork beside it. Or not. You decide.