Making Confident Decisions

This is the sixth post in the series about building my confidence:

Step 1: How confidence works
Step 2: Improving my public speaking
Step 3: Becoming more assertive and speaking up in meetings
Step 4: Knowing our own strengths – self-esteem and self-efficacy

Step 5: Facing our Fears
Step 6: Making Confident Decisions
Step 7: Finding my Vocation

The good news we learned in Steps 1-5 is that our degree of confidence is neither predestined, nor permanent. It’s a skill rooted in a set of behaviours we can learn, and there are practical steps we can take to build habits which help us become progressively more confident.

Here, we think about how we can make better, more confident decisions.

Confident decision-making is both a science and an art. It involves assessing things we can measure – such as budgets, data and risk – while bringing our human emotions – such as gut-feeling, moral purpose and fear – to the table too.

The first group of more scientific skills can help us to make better predictions. For example, becoming comfortable with risk helps us see how each possible choice may change future outcomes. Being clear about the second group of human behaviours, helps us develop our judgment. For example, we might ask ourselves, is this decision really in the best interest of our children?

Our confidence in making better decisions grows as we broaden our reach across this spectrum. To make good decisions, we need two bits of knowledge: (1) how different choices change the likelihood of different outcomes (good prediction), and (2) how desirable each of those outcomes is (good judgement). In other words, effective decision-making requires both good prediction and good judgement. How can we get better at both?

I find that three questions help me make more confident decisions:

  1. What’s the outcome you want (and does it match your values)?
  2. How will you frame your problem (and how did this change your thinking)?
  3. Have you shared the decision (plus the consequences and risks)?

Notice these are all questions. “The most important thing leaders must do today is be the chief question-asker for their organisations,” says Dev Patnaik, “and the first thing leaders need to realise is, they are really bad at asking questions.”

But first, a word of warning: history is littered with the mistakes of the arrogant, who fell prey to overconfidence. It’s a good rule of thumb before embarking on a new idea to assume that you are already way too overconfident about the likely outcome. Do we think choice A will lead to outcome B? Well, it’s probably a bit less likely than we believe. Robert Burton, neurologist and author of On Being Certain, says that we all suffer from thinking that we know more than we do, especially, men, the wealthy and experts. 

“I think we tried very hard not to be overconfident, because when you get overconfident, that’s when something snaps up and bites you.” Neil Armstrong

One antidote to this overconfidence when we are about to make a prediction, is to ask, ‘how often does that typically happen?’  It’s as if we imagine we’re the first to make this kind of decision. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman tells a story of when he was collaborating on a textbook and asked his team to estimate the date they’d complete their first draft. Between 18 months and two years was the answer. Then he asked one of those co-authors, who had led countless textbook projects, how long it typically took. He couldn’t think of a project that had finished within seven years, while 40% never finished the book. Asking, “how often does that typically happen?” (known as the base rate), reminds us that because many have gone before us, and so there is a rich data source to apply, which will help us make better predictions.

Let’s look at a common problem from school leadership:

As a school leader, it’s likely that you’ll want Y6, Y11 or Y13 exam outcomes to improve, because we want our pupils to do well, and this is a key accountability measure for most of us. So, the pressure is on us to fill those key teaching year groups with your best and most experienced teachers. But you realise that taking this decision means your brand new, excited children in Reception or Y7 may find themselves with less expert or less experienced teachers. You can’t have one without the other.

Of course, there are other factors going on: for example, because you want your most vulnerable pupils to get the best start in life, then you’d like the highest proportion of them to get your best teaching. And you also know that because you want to build the reputation of your school community, you need to listen to what new parents are saying about their child’s experience in the first few months. So here too, in Year R or Year 7, or Y12, teaching needs to be tip top. So before you even consider finances or responsibilities or succession planning, you have different factors vying for how you most effectively allocate your best resource.

And how long have you got? You know that school reputation is a lagging indicator, and that while outcomes will eventually enhance this, those key numbers don’t appear until the end of the year. Compared with this, parent talk in the playground begins on day 2 of a new year, so how long can you wait for results to tilt the balance? You have a choice to make, a difficult decision to take. It is for their strategic and tactical ability to preside over the horns of such dilemmas, that headteachers are paid.

So, should we place our strongest teachers in Year 6 or 11? What if we use our three questions as a guide for your thinking in this decision:

1. What’s the outcome you want (and does it match your values?)

Is the implicit message of always having your strongest teacher teaching Y6/Y11 for the next twenty years a good one for your staff? Author Steve Radcliffe says, “powerful and effective leaders are guided by the future that they want, and leaders are strongest when the future is powerfully connected to what he or she cares about.” When we describe the future destination that we want, this can mean asking better questions which challenge the status quo.

2. How will you frame your problem (and how did this change your thinking?)

A problem is a question in search of a solution. Asking good questions is the beginning of the problem-solving process. Too often we dive straight in, gathering data, developing hypotheses, instead of framing the problem. The first step is framing your problem. Giving permission to those around you (team members, Local Governing Bodies) to ask questions means that the questions don’t all have to come from you. This helps us overcome our inherent institutional blindness, and brings a healthy outsider’s perspective.

The right questions will probably be important, but not urgent. The Eisenhower Matrix (‘What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.’) can help decide which problems to tackle, in which order. There are always more urgent things coming across your desk, but perhaps this issue, which has sat nagging at your conscience, really needs your attention.

When we ask people to think outside the box, what we actually mean is, try to rearrange the frame around the problem to help us see it differently. Only by doing this can we begin to consider the options we haven’t yet seen. Doing your research really means ask better questions. Am I stuck in a polarised school with some very good practice and some much weaker practice? This might suggest two questions: (a) What’s our process for staff receiving helpful feedback about their practice? (b) How regularly can they learn from the best in order to develop? In other words, how effective is our mechanism to improve teaching?

And if we want to create a more equitable experience for children so everyone gets a fairer deal, what’s the best mechanism to get you there, from where you are now? Are we prepared to sacrifice some Y6 brilliance in the short term for the long-term gain of Y3 & Y4 teaching getting much stronger, thus doubling the number of children getting better teaching? Could this spread teaching quality too? And would it be useful to find a school where this journey has been accomplished and learn how they did it?

So the closer we look at our choice, the more our thinking might change.

3. Have you shared the decision (plus the consequences and risks?)

Once you are clear that your decision matches your values, and you’ve done your prep, and asked whether this is actually the right question to be asking, the next job is to share your thinking with the key people around you. When we get this right, this can help to remove the fear of isolation of making tough decisions.

Organisations stuck in cognitive hierarchies benefit by seeing the process of decision-making as a team game. Building powerful routines which enable the input of team members, governors, trustees will enrich our questions and make more powerful decisions. Saying out loud your team, “we’ve decided that…” are three powerful words, which you can always return to if things unravel later.

So in our example, the sooner you let your teams know where your thinking is going, the better. Allowing people to visualise possible future scenarios begins to share decision-making, and the earlier in the annual cycle this happens, the more decisions feel like they are being made because of good strategy, rather than on the hoof because of people problems.  

Is risk always bad? Finally, it’s worth noting that we are inherently risk averse, and our decision-making gravitates towards this, rather than taking calculated, potentially advantageous risks. Our whole risk-register culture can bias us towards avoiding rather than embracing risk. Human nature sees potential loss much more powerfully than promised gain. In times of real uncertainty and greater complexity, we are more likely to exaggerate risk and play down rewards. Because of this, we focus on today’s risks, rather than looking at the next year’s potential rewards – which may be much greater.

If you move staff around, then you may risk Y6/Y11 outcomes being less strong in the short term, so that more children getting better quality teaching, and so that in the long term overall outcomes improve. Communicating your decision early will mean there are no surprises.

Successful future-thinking leaders recognise that leading change means embracing risk. Getting this right doesn’t require bravado or head-in-the-sand behaviour, just a level of honesty as we share the thinking behind our decisions. It means accepting that there is always uncertainty and thus risk, and being able to articulate both the risk-averse and the risk-taking elements of any decision.

We live in a VUCA world – one which is Volatile (unpredictable and unstable), Uncertain (the implications of events are unclear) Complex (elaborate networks of information) and Ambiguous (cause and effect is unclear). We take decisions in and through uncertainty. @MrNickHart says, “Schools are complex because every action taken by adults and children have consequences that are desirable and undesirable; predictable and unpredictable; shorter term and longer term. Each action that leaders take might advantage some but disadvantage others.”

Successful leaders understand this but they choose not to be paralysed by uncertainty. They fear inaction more than action. While they know that their actions have no guarantee of success, they realise that making a start, taking a decision, beginning the project – is better than becoming frozen into submission. Here, you can fail by making an imperfect decision where only 40% of what you hope for happens, or you can fail by taking no decision at all, where 0% of what you want comes to pass.

Putting off a decision because of unknowns is shortsighted. Procrastination falls between a good decision and a bad decision, and the illusion is that the void is comfortable, where you feel safe for a while. There are few decisions which are final. Even if you make what you think in hindsight was the wrong decision you can correct it. Deep down we need to know that our future does not rest on one faulty decision. Just make sure that you are quick enough to realize this and make the correction rather than regretting and not doing.

“One may courageously take the step that seems right today, because it can be modified tomorrow if it does not work.” F.D. Roosevelt

And finally, don’t wait for perfection. It’s one thing being ambitious, but aiming for perfection is not realistic and it’s frankly exhausting.  If you are thinking, “this has to be perfect before we start,” you’ll never begin. You will never have all the facts at your fingertips. Perfect really is the enemy of good. Together, you will make a fair decision based on the known facts. They may change subsequently but, at the point of the decision, it was the right call.

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