Finding out how I make decisions

This week I’ve been discovering how I make decisions.

I’ve been acting-up as deputy director for our programme – essentially the person in charge – whilst my boss takes some annual leave.

Whilst I’ve covered my bosses before, this is one of the first times I’ve been asked to cover for a senior civil servant, and the first time it actually mattered. I’ve had to make decisions that couldn’t wait until the boss got back.

That might sound a bit melodramatic, but senior civil servants are uniquely, personally accountable for the work of their teams in a way I, as a someone in a “delegated grade”, usually am not. In my normal role, if I feel like I have a difficult decision, I have the comfort blanket of escalating to a senior civil servant. If I screw up, I answer to my Deputy Director.

That’s not true of the “SCS”. If a deputy director screws up, they might get hauled in front of Ministers and Parliamentary Select Committees to answer for their actions, or the actions of their team.

This week, for the first time, I had no comfort blanket. I was not only responsible for my own decisions but I was – at least in theory – individually accountable if something went wrong on my watch!

That’s been a little daunting and exposing, if I’m honest. But, confronted with consequential decisions that I am personally accountable for, it’s also where I’ve learnt some things about how I make decisions.

One-way and two-way doors

Jeff Bezos is, apparently, notable for how he make decisions. The philosophy he follows apparently goes like this:

  1. One-way doors: If a decision is “one-way”, it’s irreversible. Make those decisions slowly and with care.
  2. Two-way doors: If a decision is “two-way”, it’s reversible. Make a swift decision knowing you can change tack if you need to.

Most of the decisions I’ve had to make this week were “two-way”. I’m pretty sure I’ve made the right decisions and, if I haven’t, they can be reversed. I have discovered that, in an environment of increased accountability, I am entirely comfortable making these kinds of decisions. And why wouldn’t I be? I make these kinds of decisions all the time.

A few decisions this week though have been “one-way”. I did not enjoy making those decisions. No, sir! But these decisions did teach me something about my decision making framework: it’s consultative.

Faced with challenging decisions, I shared the problem and what I thought to other people. I asked other people what they thought. And then I made the decision.

Sounds very rational, I suppose. Especially for someone who espouses his life philosophy as “strong opinion, loosely held”.

But even then, I did not think I was that person. I thought I was a bit more overconfident in myself than that. I thought I was an instinctive and intuitive decision maker. Someone who follows their gut more than their head. The reality is not that.

I don’t know if I relied on this consultative approach because of lack of confidence, the increased pressure, or because I’ve discovered my true leadership style; but I think I like it!

Every day’s a school day, I guess.