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Strategic Planning: How to Make Better Decisions

Before you can sit down and plan for the year, you’ve got to decide what projects or goals you’ll work on. You can do it all, but you can’t do it all at once. So, some decisions are unavoidable.

Making decisions can be difficult, particularly if many of the choices are appealing. But decision-making is integral to planning.  It helps you formulate next steps, avoid pitfalls, and conserve time by choosing to do, or not do, certain things.

Not all decision-making methods are equal, and some work better than others, depending on the type of decision you need to make.

Here are four methods of decision making:

The Pro-Con List Method

A pro-con list (sometimes called a positive/negative list) is a time-tested method of choosing between two alternatives—usually between yes or no. Should I do this, or should I not?  Simply create two columns, one labeled Pro (perhaps, Do) and the other labeled Con (perhaps, Do Not).  List the positive and negative aspects of the problem in the appropriate column.

Once you’re done, you’ll have a good idea of what choice you need to make. This method is also very visual, and you can see how either one side of the problem outweighs the other.

The method can be used to choose between different alternatives by making two columns as well: Column 1 should be Option A (perhaps, Project A) and column 2 should be Option B (perhaps, Project B.)  First list all the pros for each project in their respective column. Draw a horizontal line and list all the cons for each project.  Again, the decision should be fairly obvious.

However, the method becomes problematic if both sides have an equal—or nearly equal—number of items in both the pro and con sections.

The Weighted List Method

A weighted list is similar to a Pro-Con List; however, the pros and cons are also given numeric, weighted values.  You’ll have to do a little homework beforehand on this decision, because before you can assign a weight to each positive or negative attribute, you’ll need to determine which aspects of the problem are most important to you.

For example, suppose you need to choose between two large projects, both of which align with your strategic goals and would provide similar outcomes (awards, prestige, profit, etc.) In such a case, you’ll need to determine some criteria which differentiate the projects.

Things to consider might be:

  • Start-up and/or maintenance costs: is one project more expensive to complete than the other? How tight is the budget?
  • Time: can one project be completed faster than the other? Is there some advantage to completing one project before the other?
  • Skill-level of key personnel: does your team have the appropriate level of expertise? Will you need to hire for additional skill sets before you start the project?

Once you agree on differentiators, give each of them a numerical value, based on the relative importance of each. Create your pro and con list, assigning a numerical value to each option based on your criteria. When you’re done, add up the values. Higher values in the pro column mean that option should be considered. Higher values in the con column mean that option should be discarded

Eisenhower’s Matrix

Before becoming President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower was a general in the U.S. Army and served as the Allied Forces Supreme Commander during World War II. As such, he had to make complicated, important decisions many times throughout the day. This led him to create his famous decision-making matrix, which helps prioritize needs based on importance and urgency.

The matrix looks like this:

Do First
Tasks which are both urgent and important.
Complete these tasks now.
Schedule
Tasks which are important, but not urgent.
Schedule them for later.
Delegate
Tasks which are urgent, but less important.
Delegate, if possible.
Ignore
Tasks which are neither urgent, nor important.
Don’t waste your time.

The Eisenhower Matrix is a good method to use when you need to prioritize a lengthy to-do list. It’s also very good at pruning the list: delete any items which fall into the Ignore category. (And it’s a great logic-based method for telling people “no” on the spot if their request falls into the fourth quadrant.)

Tip: Life will be less stressful if you can maintain your workday in the “Schedule” Quadrant, if possible.

The Fast Forward Method

The Fast Forward method works well when all things being considered are fairly equal, and for situations where emotional value carries more weight than logic, finances, profit, etc.  It’s a simple exercise:

  • Write down the problem and all the options you’re considering.
  • For each option, imagine it’s 3 months, 5 months or a year or more into the future after that option is complete. Consider what your situation might be, how things could be better or worse, and how you might feel since the project is done.
  • Finally, choose the scenario that has the most appeal, and work on completing that option.

If you try one of these methods and the result is vague or confusing, try another method to see what happens. If more than one method provides the same answer, it’s a clear sign of the action you should take.

This post is one of a series of posts about planning.  You might also be interested in:

Techniques:

And related:

Kelly Harmon is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. By day, she is the Webmaster of the National Agricultural Library, where she spends her time analyzing web statistics, supporting the various NAL web sites, and writing the occasional article for Tellus Magazine, produced by the Agricultural Research Service, USDA. By night, she is an award-winning journalist and author, and a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association. She’s a bit of a word-nerd, and relies on her planner to keep life sane. You can read her posts here.

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