Decision-Making 101

The leader has great responsibility for pre-thinking his guidance.

by Eric Holdeman / June 22, 2019

Few of us will lead large organizations with thousands of members. Typically, the local emergency manager has a few staff, or at best 50 or more for very large cities and counties. States also have staffs that range from 10-15 to more than 100 for places like California, New York and Florida. Still, we and the people we serve deserve good decision-making skills. We owe it to our staffs and the constituents that make up our jurisdictions to educate our elected officials on decision making principles.

The first element of decision-making is to give guidance to your staff about the overall objective(s) of the decision or action. That will give them the direction needed to develop possible courses of action. In the military, this is called the commander's intent.

Armed with the above, people working the issues should come up with 3-5 (personally I like 3 unless the situation dictates otherwise) courses of action to meet the boss's guidance. Each course of action is studied to examine the pros and cons of taking each course to fruition. Then, a discussion paragraph should be written up that analyzes the courses of action and provides some context and compares the outcomes of each. 

Finally the staff makes a recommendation for one of the courses of action. This process is then briefed to the decision-maker who either accepts the recommendation or perhaps amends it in some manner, by taking elements from one of the other courses of action and combining them, or he or she selects a course of action that was not recommended. In the worst case, the boss tells them they missed the boat, gives additional guidance and tells them to come back with different options and a new recommendation.

Once the decision is made by the boss, everyone moves in motion to execute the plan as approved. Plenty of time is needed to give subordinates the necessary space to get things in order and ready to move forward. At the appointed time as specified in the decision process, the operation begins. 

The last-minute change by President Trump to cancel the strike on Iran may sound like it was good judgment on his part to not move forward. In reality, he had likely not done enough thinking about the operation and giving guidance to the staff as to what his concerns were with what actions were to be taken. That initial "Commanders Intent" is critical to the smooth execution of mission guidance. 

Extemporaneous speaking is one style that some people use. Extemporaneous decision-making is not a style; it is a mistake! In the military, we sometimes used the term "Semper Gumby" meaning always being flexible to changes that were sure to come. I also called it "Plan 69," meaning we had 68 plans before that. 

When you make a decision, it is time to execute on the decision. If there is new information that comes to the front, e.g., a call from the Iranian ambassador that provides new information, then it is appropriate to consider that. But, information that should have been provided to begin with, that is basic in its very nature (Watch the movie The American President) is not what should cause a change in direction or execution. 

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