Making timely decisions with limited context in a rapidly changing environment. Welcome to today’s business paradigm where ‘standing still’ can be just as damaging as (or worse than) making the ‘wrong’ move.

By Philip Wong & Alexia Chianis

The next time you’re required to make a decision under volatile, uncertain, complex, or ambiguous (VUCA) conditions or feeling paralysed by a must-make decision, consider implementing this six-step approach. Aimed at speeding up your decision tempo whilst remaining adaptable, it’s an invaluable guide for today’s decision-makers.

Step 1:

Understand the purpose of the decision to be made.

In contrast to a few decades ago, most of today’s business-oriented decisions are about giving people direction and guidance on what to do rather than an “exact” answer. With that in mind, the information required for decisions to give direction or guidance is far less than the amount of information needed to formulate an “exact and correct” solution. Clarifying the purpose of the decision can de-clutter and streamline the cognitive process—thereby giving you more clarity about the decision at hand, and keep it moving.

Step 2:

Identify why the decision can’t be made now.

After you’ve outlined and contextualised the decision that needs to be made, pinpoint what’s causing the ambiguity that’s preventing it from being made now. Separate what information is absolutely necessary for decision-making, and what information would be “nice to have.” Keep in mind that additional details or volumes of data do not always result in a positive decision outcome—but at the same time, be wary if you have no information beyond subjective experience.

While intuition plays an important part in decision-making under ambiguity, it’s not fail-safe. In fact, intuition is prone to numerous biases that can affect decision making, and therefore it’s best leveraged in combination with data and relevant experience (see Table – Common Biases Affecting Decision-Making).

Step 3:

Get the information or clarity you need and mitigate the risk of being wrong.

Whether it’s gathering business intelligence data from IT or asking a senior manager for their input, don’t sit idle. Devise a plan to get the information you’ve deemed necessary for decision-making, and establish an aggressive deadline for doing so.

Once you’ve reached the practical limits (time, availability) of how much information to collect, consider what adverse outcomes may result if you make a wrong decision. From there, identify actions you can take to minimise either the impact or likelihood of those events. Oftentimes, being able (or unable) to limit the worst that could happen for any particular option can give you clarity with regard to the decision and sway you one way or another. This is not about hedging a bet each way; it’s a fundamental strategy of risk management.

It’s imperative to consider the source and validity of your data too. While making decisions based on no data may be reckless, decisions based on incorrect or ‘bad data’ can be even more damaging.

Step 4:

Make and implement the decision.

Balance analysis with intuition and judgment (see sidebar – When to Trust Your Gut: The Role of Intuition in Decision Making), then make the decision and communicate it to your team. Ask relevant questions to ensure they understand your guidance; if your team can’t visualise or communicate to you what they are supposed to do, then flesh it out until everyone is clear and has the next step in mind.

Step 5:

Identify and track indicators.

Often, leaders implement a decision and immediately move on to the next pressing task—no looking back—and no measurement for success in place. However, the success or outcome of a decision is often felt well beyond the moment the decision is made.

Without identifying and tracking indicators, you won’t know whether the decision is moving you in the desired direction and achieving the outcomes you want, or whether you can continue to ‘stack the deck’ in your favour through other actions that further reduce risk or increase the likelihood of success.

As a minimum, any assumptions on which a decision is based on (in part or whole) should be tracked to confirm the validity. Reassess your decision and plan if you find an assumption turns out to be invalid. Very few decisions in an operational context are “set and forget.” After making your decision, identify and track indicators – both those that validate your decision as well as those that suggest you are wrong to help counter any confirmation bias in your judgment, and remain engaged.

Step 6:

Identify your next decision and repeat the above steps.

If your decision or actions have achieved the outcomes you wanted, then it’s time to tackle the next decision. If you aren’t getting the outcomes you were hoping for, then it’s time to reassess the decision. Either way, start with Step 1 and work through the six-step process again.

When to Trust Your Gut: The Role of Intuition in Decision-Making

As the business world becomes less structured and predictable, and decisions must be made faster than ever, intuition becomes an increasingly valuable decision-making tool. Research has shown that intuition may be just as effective as an analytical approach— and even more effective—depending on the decision maker’s level of expertise about the topic at hand. 2

What is intuition?

Intuition can be thought of as the culmination of advanced patterns of recognition, where your subconscious mind identifies connections between your current situation and various patterns of previous experiences —thereby predicting which decision is best. Due to the fact that you can’t remember all the nuances and lessons of these experiences you aren’t able to articulate why moving forward with a certain decision or solution seems right (an experience commonly referred to as “trusting your gut”).

What is the role of intuition in decision-making?

For the most part, “good” intuition-based decisions are strongly tied to experience. Meaning, the success rate of an intuitive solution is higher when the decision maker has extensive domain experience. Researchers found that in general, leaders can trust their gut and rely on intuition when “making a broad evaluation… in an area where they have in-depth knowledge of the subject.” 3 The reverse is also typically true: an intuitive solution is less likely to be successful in a structured multi-step decision, or when the decision maker is not an expert in the subject area.

I think I have a lot of experience in my ‘domain’ – does that mean that I can trust my intuition?

Maybe. It turns out that some environments and contexts aren’t very well suited for people to develop “good” intuition. Research by psychologist and Nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman, and Gary Klein (a leading researcher in naturalistic decision-making), identified contexts where intuition is more likely to be valid. These are environments which are sufficiently regular to be predictable; and where there have been opportunities to learn these regularities through prolonged practice. 4

In occupations with these “high validity” environments, experience has been shown to translate into skill and good decision making fairly well (e.g. Chess Masters, Test Pilots, Accountants, Insurance Analysts). In contrast, occupations in environments with “low validity” – a combination of irregular characteristics and limited opportunities to learn from exposure to these characteristics (e.g. Recruiters, Stock Brokers, Court Judges, Counsellors) – “experts” oftentimes deliver intuitive decisions which are not significantly different from non-experts or worse than algorithmic approaches. 5

What’s the takeaway?

Intuition can help you navigate faster through certain decisions, but not to the exclusion of facts or analytics. And remember, if you don’t have extensive knowledge of the topic at hand, or the topic has “low validity” characteristics, the intuitive approach may not be the best course of action.

The Next Step

Dave Girouard, former President of Google Enterprise Apps, describes all business activity as “Making decisions and executing on decisions” with success dependent on a business’ ability “to develop speed as a habit in both”. 6 Learning to make decisions — especially in the face of VUCA — is about developing the capacity to quickly and consistently assess the information available, clearly communicate the desired action, and then having a mechanism to adapt to changing conditions in order to maximise opportunities.

Like all skills, practice will build proficiency along with speed. Applying the approach outlined above is a good start to ensuring you are able to consistently make considered and comprehensive operational decisions that blend data, intuition and judgment with fundamental elements of risk management.


  1. Wolf, R.F. How to Minimize Your Biases When Making Decisions. Harvard Business Review. 24 September 2012. Available online: https://hbr.org/2012/09/how-to-minimizeyour- biases-when (accessed on 15 January 2018)
  2. Dane, E., Rockmann, K.W., Pratt, M.G. When should I trust my gut? Linking domain expertise to intuitive decision-making effectiveness. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2012; 119(2): 187-194
  3. Ibid.
  4. Kahneman, D. & Klein, G. Conditions for Intuitive Expertise. American Psychologist, 2009 September; 64(60): 515-526
  5. Shanteau, J. Competence in experts: The role of task characteristics. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 1992; 53(2): 252-266.
  6. Girouard, D. Speed as a Habit. First Round Review. Available online: http://firstround. com/review/speed-as-a-habit/ (accessed on 16 January 2018)

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