Some thoughts on decision making

Jason Yip
4 min readNov 12, 2022

How decisions are made is more important than who makes them

“Wow, everything about that decision is wrong… but at least we have a clearly accountable decision-maker.”
How decisions are made is more important than who makes them

Higher decision quality is about data, reasoning, insight, perspective, consideration of alternatives, consideration of timing and context, etc. It has nothing to do with who makes the decision.

If a decision is made well, it doesn’t really matter who makes it… except in terms of decision buy-in.

“Decision by consent” over “decision by consensus” or “decision by authority”

Decision by (unilateral) authority tends to lead to low-quality decisions with low buy-in.

Decision by consensus is good for quality and buy-in but tends to take a long time.

Decision by consent is generally the best balance between quality, buy-in, and speed.

Table showing decision approaches and their corresponding quality speed and buy-in assessment. Unilateral authority has low quality, high speed, and low buy-in. Consensus has high quality, low speed, and high buy-in. Consent has high quality, high speed, and high buy-in
Assessing decision approaches for quality, speed, and buy-in

NOTE: Edgar Schein described these and even more alternatives in Process Consultation Revisited

The first question should be “what problem are you trying to solve?”

Decisions in a workplace typically exist within the context of solving a problem.

If the problem is clearly defined, what the decision is, and when it needs to be made, should be obvious.

Leave expensive decisions open until the last responsible moment

“Schedule irreversible decisions for the last responsible moment, that is, the last chance to make the decision before it is too late.”

Mary and Tom Poppendieck, Implementing Lean Software Development

Some decisions are cheap to reverse. These kinds of decisions should be made quickly and changed quickly if needed.

Some decisions are very expensive to reverse. These kinds of decisions should not be made until the last responsible moment so you can maximise the amount of information you have before you make the decision.

When a decision is cheap to reverse, make the decision quickly and just change it if it turns out to be wrong. When a decision is expensive to reverse, gather as much information as you can before making the decision BUT ensure you make the decision in time (AKA the “last responsible moment”)
Cheap to reverse vs expensive to reverse decisions

NOTE: This is also known as one-way (expensive to reverse) vs two-way (cheap to reverse) decisions (Amazon).

Separate consultation and debate from making and committing to decisions

When consultation and debate is mixed in with making and committing to decisions, you either have people complaining that decision-making is taking too long OR people complaining that they’re not being consulted on decisions OR both.

“So that’s the proposal, are there any objections to deciding to proceed?” “Hold on.. we need to time to think about it first…” “We never actually make decisions in any of these meetings…”
Consult, debate, decide all mixed together

Instead, separate all the activities: consultation, debate, making and committing to a decision.

Consultation tends to work better 1:1 or in small groups.

NOTE: This is also known as “nemawashi” (Toyota) or “shuttle diplomacy” (Product Roadmaps Relaunched)

There are two triggers I’ve typically seen that suggest the need for a debate session:

  1. Some people need to talk-to-think;
  2. There’s too much back-and-forth happening in asynchronous mechanisms to share context (e.g., doc comments, Slack threads, etc.)

Key points with a debate session:

  1. Not everyone needs to attend the debate;
  2. No decisions are made in debate sessions.

Key points with a decision session:

  1. Debate should have occurred outside of the decision session;
  2. Decide by consent.

Collective responsibility; single point of accountability

Responsibility and accountability are not synonymous.

Everyone involved is responsible for the decision; it’s useful to have one person who is accountable (i.e., single point of contact).

This means everyone involved feels responsible for ensuring decisions are made well but if someone outside the process wants to know what is happening or what happened with the decision, there’s a clear person to talk to.

Someone has a question about the decision. There is a single person representing the decision-making group to ask the question to.
Single point of accountability

See also From “no accountability” to “collective accountability”. | by Jason Yip | Medium

Record the decision (and check in later)

It’s easy to make decisions if you don’t bother checking if they’re any good.

Keep a decision record that includes rationale and when you plan to check how the decision performs. If the rationale no longer holds, or the desired outcome doesn’t occur, consider changing the decision.

See also PDCA



Jason Yip

Senior Manager Product Engineering at Grainger. Extreme Programming, Agile, Lean guy. Ex-Spotify, ex-ThoughtWorks, ex-CruiseControl