Sunday, 21 February 2010

Decision-Making - A Critical Success Factor

This week Oprah on ownTV Oprah asked the question:

"How do you make big decisions?"

This is an important question because the quality of our lives is based upon the decisions we make and to become very successful in life you need to be an excellent decision-maker.

I was watching a program called "The Sky At Night" which reminded me of this question. It's not a program I normally watch, in fact I don't normally watch television at all these days but anyway I happened to catch this particular program and I found it really interesting - not just the content but how passionate the scientists were about the subject. They were discussing the exploration of Mars.

One of the ways in which NASA has been studying Mars is through the use of Mars Exploration Rovers. One of these rovers is called Opportunity and during the program one of the scientists spoke about the decision-making process regarding exploring a huge crater named Victoria.

For months scientists agonised over the decision about whether or not to give the go-ahead for exploration of Victoria Crater. To put the length of this decision-making process into perspective the life-expectancy of a rover was initially estimated to be just 3 months. Fortunately, Opportunity, along with another rover called Spirit, has been going for over six years now.

There was concern that if Opportunity descended into the crater that it might malfunction or not be able to get back out of the crater again. It was definitely a risky undertaking. However, the scientists decided to take a calculated risk because the opportunity (no pun intended) was simply too big to miss out on. When Alan Stern, NASA's Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate announced the decision he acknowledged the risks and then added:

"...the science could occupy us not just for days or weeks, but for months. This is why I've authorized the rover to go into the crater."

There are several parallels in this story to our decision-making process. People often take ages to make a decision. In this case, it may have been warranted because there was a lot at stake. This is obviously a very costly operation and the scientists want to maximise the opportunity. But beyond the cost and scientific implications, as strange as it may seem, the scientists care about these robotic probes almost as though they were their offspring.

We're often afraid to make decisions because we're afraid of the consequences of our decisions. And so we often procrastinate for days, weeks, months and even years before making a decision. Think of all the opportunities that are lost during this time. And what's worse, during this time there's often little or no action regarding the issue in question. And so you don't make progress. At least Opportunity was making her way to Victoria Crater, and continuing to make fascinating discoveries along the way.

We afraid that we might fail in our quest and end up in a deep 'hole' that we're unable to extricate ourselves from. And that the decision we make may literally spell out the end for us.

The reality is that very few of the decisions we make have such dire consequences. The right decision is generally a chance to for us to move forward in the direction of our goals or dreams even if the decision turns out not to be the best decision. You see, even if something doesn't work out, so long as we learn from the experience, all is not lost. And sometimes the lessons we learn from a decision that doesn't quite go in our favour become critical factors later in our quest to achieve our goals.

There were times during the descent when Opportunity got stuck and simply spun its wheels but it overcame these challenges and reached ground where it had more traction. After making a big decision, you too may find that you become stuck and you may find yourself in a place where you don't feel as though you're making any progress but if you persevere you'll be able to overcome these challenges.

So by all means, when it comes to making a big decision, by all means do your due diligence – your risk assessment. But then listen to your intuition, make a decision and then take action.

So what was Oprah's response to this question?

"I have a kitchen cabinet of friends who I surround myself with in times of big decisions. And there've been a few major decisions I've had in my life where I bring that cabinet of friends together and just go around the table and ask what do you think, what do you think, what do you think. And I listen to what everybody has to say. And then I listen mostly to what I am feeling based upon what everybody is saying and then I make a decision."

Opportunity's Odyssey to Victoria Crater

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