3 safety valves for high-pressure decisions

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One of the things that I’m learning through the design and creativity coaching sessions that I am running with engineers is that it is not a lack of design skills but rather other factors which impede their ability to do good design. One such factor is making decisions under pressure. So I’ve put together this three-part process to help relieve the pressure. It is written with engineers in mind but as you can see this approach is much more widely applicable.

Decision-making, of course, is an important part of design: a designer has to continually choose between multiple options; to decide whether an idea is an appropriate response to a brief; to decide whether or not to proceed. But beyond the design process itself, our decisions also affect how much time we have to do design, or do to do anything else we want to spend our time on.

In the workplace, we are often forced to make decisions under pressure: “Can you make a quick decision for me so that we can move ahead?” “I know it’s not what we originally agreed, but could you just a spend a bit of time working out how to do this for me?” “This situation has arisen, I need you to quickly decide which of these two options to go for. If we get this wrong, we will be pouring money down the plughole, blocking sewers and causing effluent to back up and flood streets with a tide of… ” Sound familiar?

So here are three pressure valves to try. They won’t work all the time, but hopefully something in here will serve as a reminder to help you buy more time.

1. Change the rules of the game in your favour

This is the pre-emptive bit. Is there anything you can do to avoid being put into a situation where you have to make high-pressure decisions in the first place? Here are some things to think about.

  • Create the rules – in many organisational contexts there are usually rules in place to dictate how much time you have to respond to a query. These are there in part to ensure quality of service, but also, to make sure you have the time to think carefully about your response. Is it always necessary to respond straight away?
  • Be clear about response times – you can often look ahead in a project and see when people are going to be asking you make decisions. Pre-empt the process by being clear about how much time you will need to respond to queries, and perhaps even set a time after which you won’t be able to accept any more.
  • Limit access – are you being asked to make the decision because you are the most available person? If you were less available, would the people asking you to make a decision actually figure out the problem for themselves? When I spent a year working in a research laboratory for my Masters degree, as hand-in time loomed, the leader of the research group made it very clear when he would be answering queries and when we wouldn’t, and we made very sure we carefully prepared our questions for him before his door would shut.
  • Avoid making decisions altogether – decisions are hard work. Maybe if we made fewer of them, we might have more energy to make the important ones correctly? For more on this theme I highly recommend Tim Ferris’s post ‘The Choice-Minimal Lifestyle: 6 Formulas for More Output and Less Overwhelm

2. Unload the emotional baggage

We are not fully rational beings. Our brain functions evolved in a very different environment. (Sometimes I wonder how we might have evolved had natural selection taken place in the modern open-plan workplace – maybe a blog post for the future?). Naturally, emotions influence our decision-making.

As Daniel Goleman explains in his book Emotional Intelligence, the part of our brain which engages with higher level thinking is also the part that has the job of suppressing our more deep-seated emotional reactions. If that pre-frontal cortex is busy surpressing that little voice in our head that is telling us we are in trouble, then it is not available to work on problem solving. He suggests that this is the original of the phenomenon of not being able to think straight. Here’s some things to try out to help unload the emotional baggage that is stopping us from thinking straight.

  • Is this really your problem? – before you start exercising your decision-making faculties, ask if this is even your decision to make in the first place. Sometimes all the person asking needs is someone to talk to about the situation, afterwhich they can make the decision themselves.
  • Be upfront about the emotional angle – sometimes it is best to be upfront about the emotional consequences of being asked to make a decision. For example, when a client asks you to make a difficult decision on a job, you could just say, look, this decision is going to be difficult for me because I feel this or that. Your interlocutor may have had no idea about the way you were feeling about the situation and may easily be able to offer much more clarity or even change what they are asking.
  • Is the decision reversible? – If it is, then don’t get stressed over it, especially if it frees up your mind to think about the things that really are important to you (see again the Tim Ferris post mentioned above).
  • Talk through your concerns with someone – talking through the situation with someone can help you more objectively assess the issues at hand and perhaps diffuse some of the emotional content of the decision. I often find that when I have a mental block about a decision, it is often because I am scared of consequences that I have conjured up which, on talking it through, I realise are imaginary.
  • Is it just bad luck that the decision has landed on your desk? – sometimes, despite the best planning, fortune is not smiling on you and you have to make a difficult decision. This realisation can at least remove the guilt factor so that you can get on with thinking about the right solution.
  • Perhaps there is no right answer, and that’s not your fault – I have just started reading Senneca’s Letters from a Stoic, and it immediately reminds me that we are sometimes faced with situations which are just outside our control. It takes emotional discipline, but if we can recognise when we are faced with such a situation, we can get over the emotional reaction and try to think about what the best, or least worst, solution is.

3. Open the decision-making toolbox

Unnecessary decisions avoided, emotional baggage checked in, here are some of my favourite tools to help with making decisions.

  • Ask someone else what they would do – this sounds obvious, but something that I have observed recently is that this technique helps even if you disagree with what they propose. I recently had a difficult work decision to make regarding a customer. I had a roughly formed view, and wanted a second opinion. My colleauge argued a different course of action, but when I heard their reasoning, I was more convinced that my own approach was the right one.
  • Go back to the brief – the brief or the project objectives are there to provide guidelines on how to make decisions in the project – use them.
  • How would you feel about this in the future – this comes straight from Chip and Dan Heath’s book Decisive, which has a range of great decision-making tools in it. They suggest trying to take the long view on a decision. Thinking how you might regard your decision in ten years’ time helps to remove you from your daily milieu and encourages you to think about broader factors which might influence the decisions.
  • Invert the problem – Ask yourself what decision would lead to the worst possible outcome for everyone. Sometimes thinking about problems from the opposite way round can give you insights which you never saw from the other side.

If you have any suggestions of your own about how to take the pressure out of high-pressure decisions, then please share them with other readers by commenting below.

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