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Making Decisions When Everything Around Us Is Changing

As a coach I’m used to hearing people tell me they can’t make a decision or can’t decide what to do, it goes with the territory.  it’s largely what we are there to do, to give people a way to work things out.

When we are in the middle of change and surrounded by uncertainty, that feeling of not being able to get your head around decisions grows, it’s very unsettling and can leave us questioning our own judgement.

And that’s not a great feeling especially when we are leading others through change - in fact, that just piles the pressure on and makes it even harder to think and make a decision.So what can we do to help ourselves make decisions when everything around us is changing?  That’s what we are going to talk about in this episode, so are you ready?  

It’s time to get curious and make some choice about how we make decisions when it seems that everything is changing around us.

How we feel about making decisions when everything is changing?

We’ve all been there, trying to make a decision, thinking it should be simple, but each time we think we have made that decision, we find a new fact and find ourselves questioning it again.  And yes, we might expect a bit of twisting and turning along the way to making a big decision like buying a house, or even choosing a holiday, remember those!

But when we are surrounded by uncertainty or imminent change we can find ourselves going through that process and questioning our ability to make decisions over what we think should be simple things, like what to wear today or what to eat for supper.  

Then we start to worry disproportionately about the consequences of decisions we make and now we have a huge dollop of anxiety in the mix.  By the time we come to make the decisions we have used a whole lot of energy and we need more to make the decision - except now we are exhausted and the problem gets worse.

But we are great at decision making - we do it a lot!

Contrary to how we may be feeling when it get’s like this, we are actually really good at making decisions. 

It’s estimated that we make about 35 thousand conscious choices every day, they range in size from is it time for coffee (the answer to that should always be yes) to much bigger and potentially life changing decisions.  

Now if we assume that we sleep for 7 hours a day and that we are not consciously making decisions then, that means we are making a decision every 1 ¾ of a second, or 2059 an hour.  That sounds exhausting in itself and actually you can measure a tiny drop in our blood sugar level when we  make decisions in experimental conditions.

Why does it seem so hard to make decisions when everything around us is changing?

The way our brains make decisions is to pass the information along pathways, think of that information as being a bit like water.  The first time we put some water down it tends to just go everywhere, but with some effort, we can guide it to its destination.  If we do this often enough it will start to wear a groove and flow more consistently in the same direction.  

Eventually, it will create a deep gully with few obstacles or even bumps and will flow quickly along.  It will seem like we hardly have to think when we make that decision and it will become increasingly less conscious as it takes less and less effort.

And that works beautifully when everything is relatively stable.  But incredibly big and powerful as our brains are, they do have a finite processing capacity, even when we are operating on full sleep and optimal health.  

When you throw in change, some of that capacity is taken up thinking about and processing that change, leaving less for the other decision.

Change and uncertainty are like little explosions or sometimes big ones on the surface of our decision making, and suddenly the walls that hold the flowing water in have started to crumble and water is escaping, we don’t know where the cracks are and we have to rush around and fix them before another one appears.

For a while, each decision becomes more conscious and takes more effort and energy.  This always happens with change, even if it's just a small one like your favourite brand of a product not being available in the supermarket.  But if you think back to your experience during the corona virus lockdown every decision became proportionally bigger as we had to work out how to do the basics, like shop for food in a whole new way, and certainly everyone I’ve spoken to has said that it moved from being a quick decision that was hardly thought about to being a huge internal debate around a whole new set of criteria.

Making the most of our decision making capacity during change

So how can we make sure we use the capacity we have to our best advantage?

Well the first thing is to make sure we are managing our overall levels of anxiety and stress, looking after ourselves generally, making sure we breathe deeply and keep doing what ever it is you normally do to stay on the top of your game.  


Next, we need to make sure we are using the processing capacity that we have on things that we can do something about.  In the last episode, I shared a technique for putting decisions into one of three buckets - the things you can control, the things you can influence and the things that concern you but that you can’t do anything about.  We need to do the same here - by focusing on decisions that we can control we will make progress, we will be more confident in our ability to make decisions and the things we can make decisions on will grow.  If we fill this limited capacity we are experiencing with things that we are worried about but which we have no control over we will soon feel overwhelmed and helpless.  

If you want to know more about that check out Episode 7 on how to plan when everything is uncertain.

How can we make the right decisions when we don't know what's going to change?

So once we have optimised how we are using that decision processing capacity it’s time to put it to good use.

When we are making decisions in a rapidly changing environment it is harder to know if we are making the right decision?

We know every decision we make has consequences and part of making decisions is weighing up those consequences.  But how can we do that when we don’t know what the world we are operating in looks like, what’s possible and what’d not and we know that the criteria we are making those decisions by is likely to change?

We are experiencing an extreme case of this in our working worlds at the moment - literally, no one knows how business is going to operate in the post-pandemic world, we just know it is going to be different.  And yet we find ourselves needing to make important decisions that could have lasting consequences.  It’s no wonder we are a little decision shy at the moment.

We have however had to make decisions when we are going through change before and when there has been a heightened level of uncertainty, and we need to draw on that experience and use the tools that helped us then.

Understanding the risk - what's the worst that could happen?

One of the techniques that I find helpful in these situations is borrowed from the world of project management and is based on creating a risk matrix. 

When you are considering a decision ask yourself what could go wrong if you make that decision?

There was a series of adverts here in the UK for Dr Pepper which included the question, what’s the worst thing that could happen.  Now when I worked for the company that owned Dr Pepper is was a question we asked a lot so these adverts really stood out for me.  There were a few but basically there would be someone who was considering drinking a Dr Pepper, and we would hear that internal dialogue as What’s the worst thing that could happen - and in the adverts it was a crazy ride of highly unlikely things leading to a very embarrassing situation.  Some of the things that happened were easy to predict and very likely to happen, usually the first few in the crazy chain of event, but as the advert unfolded they became less and less likely.  Some of the things had small consequences, like spilling the drink, others had major ones like broadcasting your potentially embarrassing conversation with the school nurse to the whole school.

It’s the same with our decisions - we need to decide how likely each potential thing that could go wrong is, it’s probability, and then how big an impact or problem it would cause if it did happen.

I find it easiest to divide each into high and low and then to plot them on a grid like this.

Risk Martix

In the bottom left corner of the grid, you have the things that won’t have much impact and are not very likely to happen - kind of like a shallow ditch you have to step over as you walk along.  The concerns you have that fall in this box can be ignored - after all the chances are they aren’t going to happen and even if they do you won’t really notice them.

If we go to the top right box, however, we have the things that will have a big impact and there is a strong chance that they will happen - here we are talking a major very wide very deep hole we have to navigate.  Obviously, these things need our focus.  When it comes to making decisions we need to put our effort into understanding what makes them likely, and if there are any ways we can reduce that likelihood with things we can do.  There may not be many of them, so we also need to look at what we can do to effectively fill in that hole and make the impact of them smaller and easier to manage. 

Risk Matrix Focus

So for example, if there is a second wave of Corona Virus, there are things we can do to make that less likely, but it’s not totally in our control so we also need to find ways to minimise the impact of it on our business.  What those are will depend on your business, but for example, keeping people working remotely and making sure your business is set up to serve clients that way would mean the impact of another lockdown would be minimised.

Once you have the top right box covered off you can consider the other two diagonals and decide if you need to do anything with the things in them.

So when you are facing a big decision you can work through the risks of the different choices you and make and then make one.  

And a couple of things to keep in mind.  You can always decide not to make a decision, don’t forget you can always decide not to make a decision but you need to consider the consequences of that and the risks involved of those.

And secondly, as part of your normal business processes, you’ll be reviewing what's going on in your team and your business and if that decision turns out not to be a great one, you can always go back and make another decision and change course.

Summary & Taking Action

OK, so in this episode, we have talked about that panic we can feel when we are faced with making decisions when everything around us seems uncertain and this impacts the mechanics of how we make decisions.  We talked about protecting the capacity we do have available in the midst fo change and uncertainty by looking after our wellbeing and focusing on the things that we can control.  Finally, we grabbed a can of Dr Pepper and looked at the worst thing that could happen if we took a certain decision, and looked at how we could look at the probability and the impact of those things to work out if we could deal with the outcomes of the decisions.

The things I share are based on my experiences and some will be more relevant to you than others - it’s up to you to decide what you take and apply from this podcast.  That’s what curious choice leadership is all about - getting curious and building our understanding then evaluating what we find and making choices about what’s right for us and our business.

So ready for the next time you are finding making a decision difficult because of all the uncertainty, the question I would like to leave you with is, 

What's the worst thing that could happen?

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