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When to Stop Deliberating and Just Make a Decision


Here is an excerpt from an article written by Thomas H. Davenport for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit: Jorg Greuel/Getty Images

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You’ve come up with ideas, narrowed down your options, and looked at the available data. You’ve asked all the right questions to guide your choice. And yet, for some reason, you just can’t pull the trigger on a decision. What’s the hold up?

Whether you’ve experienced this indecision yourself or you’ve known a leader or executive with the habit, it can be incredibly problematic — and potentially damaging — to sit on decisions. Waiting too long to make decisions can slow businesses down, frustrate employees, and mean missing critical opportunities. When should you just make the decision versus gathering more data or cogitating on it longer?

In order to figure out whether a decision requires further time or should just be made, you need to do a little “meta-decision analysis,” or put more simply, you need to decide how to decide. In order to decide when your choice needs to be made, you have to think about how important it is, how urgent it is, and whether you can use some organizational decision-making approaches to make it more accurate and likely to be correct.

[Here is the first of several practical suggestions.]

Consider the Importance of Your Decision

The single most critical factor in determining how long a decision should take is how important it is. Decisions of little consequence should not take very long. So the first step in deciding how to decide should be to ask yourself — or others if you don’t trust your own judgment: How much of a difference will this decision make? If it won’t make a big difference to your life or business, just make the decision and move on. Then you can devote your scarce time and brainpower to the decisions that really matter.

For more important decisions, there are two good reasons for extending your decision-making process a bit. One is to reflect, and the other is to gather data and analyze it. Reflection — particularly when the decision maker can engage the unconscious mind — can be a good way to determine which factors are most important in a complex decision. Some observers recommend sleeping on a decision after reviewing the key factors around the decision, but there are other ways to engage the unconscious mind as well. Rest, play, meditation, or even taking a shower may do the trick. In any case, reflecting on a decision won’t require much additional time; a day or night should be sufficient.

The other good reason for waiting on a decision is to gather data and analyze it. There has long been evidence across many decision domains that data- and analytics-based decisions are more accurate than those made by human intuition. However, it takes a lot of time to gather data, and some more to analyze it. But if it’s an important decision and the data exists somewhere, it is probably worth the trouble to employ a data-driven decision-making approach — particularly if it’s going to be made multiple times.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Thomas H. Davenport is the President’s Distinguished Professor in Management and Information Technology at Babson College, a research fellow at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, and a senior adviser at Deloitte Analytics. He is the author of over a dozen management books, most recently Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines and The AI Advantage.


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