For More Effective Decision Making, First Align on Underlying Principles

Most team decisions involve a number of reasonable choices, each involving tradeoffs. If you’ve been thinking about a problem for some time, the underlying tradeoffs may be quite clear to you, and the best choice may seem obvious.

So it can be a surprise when you present the options to your team but find the discussion doesn’t go as smoothly as you’d like or the focus isn’t where you want it to be. Other folks who’ve spent less time in the space will often have a different context for thinking through the problem.

Help frame the decision by first building alignment around a few principles. Then, when you present the options, your audience will share your context and quickly understand your reasoning.

An Example

Imagine that you’re designing a professional development experience for a group of employees and you have three ideas:

  • You could design a common curriculum that everyone works through together.
  • The group could pick its own focus for the course.
  • You could create a framework in which each individual chooses how to spend their time.

A sufficiently motivated group could spend hours debating the pros and cons of these approaches. They’re all reasonable options, depending on what outcomes you’re prioritizing. You could find yourself going down rabbit holes of logistics or personal preferences.

But what if you started by aligning on a few principles? For example:

  • Each participant should have the opportunity to focus on their strengths.
  • The content should be timely for participants, based on their current assignments.
  • It’s important to build engagement by giving participants autonomy.

With these principles, it would be easy for the group to see that the best choice is to allow each employee to pick a personal focus.

How to Align on Principles

Your team may not agree on your initial principles, so there may be some real debate.

  1. Review your underlying principles together as a team. It’s valuable to confirm that everyone’s on the same page before moving forward.
  2. Celebrate disagreement if you discover it. It’s an opportunity to learn from others and come to stronger alignment on the decision.
  3. Don’t limit your principles to things you’d like to see. Sometimes it’s just as important to think about outcomes you’d like to avoid.
  4. Focus on what’s critical. Less is generally more, and your top two or three priorities should be enough to drive a clear decision.

Focusing on principles upfront can keep you from getting into the weeds on lower-priority details.