Strong decision-making skills are essential for newly appointed and seasoned managers alike. The ability to navigate complex challenges and develop a plan for moving forward can not only lead to more effective team management, but drive key organizational change initiatives and objectives.

Despite the importance of decision-making in business, a recent survey by McKinsey shows that just 20 percent of professionals believe their organizations excel at it. Survey respondents also noted that, on average, they spend 37 percent of their time making decisions, but more than half of it is used ineffectively.

According to Harvard Business School Professor Leonard Schlesinger, who’s featured in the online course Management Essentials, the majority of managers view decision-making as a single event, rather than a process. This can lead to situations in which managers overestimate their ability to influence an outcome and close themselves off from alternative perspectives and diverse ways of thinking.

“The reality is, it’s very rare to find a single point in time where ‘a decision of significance’ is made and things go forward from there,” Schlesinger says. “Embedded in this work is the notion that what we’re really talking about is a process. The role of the manager in managing that process is actually quite straightforward, yet, at the same time, extraordinarily complex.”

If you want to further your business knowledge and be more effective in your role, here are eight steps in the decision-making process you can employ to become a better manager and have greater influence at your organization.

Steps in the Decision-Making Process

1. Frame the Decision

Pinpointing the issue is the first step to initiating the decision-making process. Ensure the problem is carefully analyzed, clearly defined, and everyone involved in the outcome agrees on what needs to be solved.

Schlesinger says this initial action can be challenging for managers, because an ill-formed question can result in a decision-making process that produces the wrong answer.

“The real issue for a manager at the start is to make sure they’re actively working to shape the question they’re trying to address and the decision they’re trying to have made,” Schlesinger says. “That’s not a trivial task.”

2. Structure Your Team

Managers must assemble the right people to navigate the decision-making process.

“The issue of who’s going to be involved in helping you to make that decision is one of the most central issues you face,” Schlesinger says. “The primary issue being the membership of the collection of individuals or group that you’re bringing together to make that decision.”

As you build your team, Schlesinger advises mapping the technical, political, and cultural underpinnings of the decision that needs to be made and gathering colleagues with an array of skills and experience levels to help you reach a viable solution.

“You want some newcomers who are going to provide a different point of view and perspective on the issue you’re dealing with,” he says. “At the same time, you want people who have profound knowledge and deep experience with the problem.”

Schlesinger notes that attempting to arrive at the “right answer” without a team that will ultimately support and execute it is a “recipe for failure.”

3. Consider the Timeframe

This act of mapping the intricacies of the issue at hand should involve taking the urgency of the decision into account. Business problems that come with significant implications sometimes allow for a more lengthy decision-making process, whereas other challenges might call for a more accelerated timeline.

“As a manager, you need to shape the decision-making process in terms of both of those dimensions: The criticality of what it is you’re trying to decide and, more importantly, how quickly it needs to get decided given the urgency,” Schlesinger says. “The final question is, how much time you’re going to provide yourself and the group to invest in both problem diagnosis and decisions.”

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4. Establish Your Approach

In the early stages of the decision-making process, it’s critical to set ground rules and assign roles to team members. Doing so can help ensure everyone understands how they can contribute to problem-solving and agrees on how a solution will ultimately be reached.

“It’s really important to get clarity upfront around the roles people are going to play and the ways in which decisions are going to get made,” Schlesinger says. “Often, managers leave that to chance, so people self-assign themselves to roles in ways that you don’t necessarily want and the decision-making process defers to consensus, which is likely to lead to a lower evaluation of the problem and a less creative solution.”

5. Encourage Discussion and Debate

One of the issues of leading a group that defaults to consensus is that it can shut out contrarian points of view and deter inventive problem-solving. Because of this potential pitfall, Schlesinger notes, you should designate some roles that are focused on poking holes in arguments and fostering debate.

“What we’re talking about is establishing a process of devil’s advocacy, either in an individual or a subgroup role,” he says. “That’s much more likely to lead to a deeper critical evaluation and generate a substantial number of alternatives.”

Schlesinger adds that this action can take time and potentially disrupt group harmony, so it’s vital for managers to guide the inner workings of the process from the outset to ensure effective collaboration.

“What we need to do is establish norms in the group that enable us to be open to a broader array of data and decision-making processes,” he says. “If that doesn’t happen upfront, but in the process without a conversation, it’s generally a source of consternation and some measure of frustration.”

Related: How to Lead a Critical Meeting with 3 Decision-Making Processes

6. Navigate Group Dynamics

In addition to creating a dynamic in which candor and debate are encouraged, there are other challenges you need to navigate as you manage your team throughout the decision-making process.

One is ensuring the size of the group is appropriate for the problem and allows for an efficient workflow.

“In getting all the people together that have relevant data and represent various political and cultural constituencies, each incremental member adds to the complexity of the decision-making process and the amount of time it takes to get a decision made and implemented,” Schlesinger says.

Another task, he notes, is identifying which parts of the process can be completed without face-to-face interaction.

“There’s no question that pieces of the decision-making process can be deferred to paper, email, or some app,” Schlesinger says. “But, at the end of the day, given that so much of decision-making requires high-quality human interaction, you need to defer some part of the process for ill-structured and difficult tasks to a face-to-face meeting.”

7. Ensure the Pieces Are in Place for Implementation

Throughout your team’s efforts to arrive at a decision, you need to ensure you’re facilitating a process that encompasses:

  • Shared goals that were presented upfront
  • Alternative options that have been given rigorous thought and fair consideration
  • Sound methods for exploring the consequences of decisions

According to Schlesinger, all three of these components have a profound influence on the quality of the solution that’s ultimately identified.

“In the general manager’s job, the quality of the decision is only one part of the equation,” he says. “All of this is oriented toward trying to make sure that once a decision is made, we have the right groupings and the right support to implement.”

8. Achieve Closure and Alignment

Achieving closure in the decision-making process requires arriving at a solution that sufficiently aligns members of your group and garners enough support to implement it.

As with the other phases of decision-making, clear communication is key to ensure your team understands and is committed to the plan for moving forward. In a video interview for the online course Management Essentials, Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria says it’s essential to explain the rationale behind the decision to your employees.

“If it’s a decision that you have to make, say, ‘I know there were some of you who thought differently, but let me tell you why we went this way,’” Nohria says. “This is so the people on the other side feel heard and recognize the concerns they raised are things you’ve tried to incorporate into the decision and, as implementation proceeds, if those concerns become real, then they’ll be attended to.”

Learn More about Management Essentials

Improving Your Decision-Making

An in-depth understanding of the decision-making process is a vital asset for all managers. Whether you’re an aspiring leader seeking to move up at your organization or a seasoned executive aiming to boost your job performance, honing your approach to decision-making can improve your managerial skills and equip you with the tools to advance your career.

Do you want to become a more effective leader and manager? Download our free leadership and management e-book to find out how. Also, explore our online courses Leadership Principles and Management Essentials to learn how you can take charge of your professional development and accelerate your career.

Matt Gavin

About the Author

Matt Gavin is a member of the marketing team at Harvard Business School Online. Prior to returning to his home state of Massachusetts and joining HBS Online, he lived in North Carolina, where he held roles in news and content marketing. He has a background in video production and previously worked on several documentary films for Boston’s PBS station, WGBH. In his spare time, he enjoys running, exploring New England, and spending time with his family.