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In the ten days between being invited to write this blog, and sitting down to do so, the world has been transformed by the advance of COVID 19.
At the same time as getting used to new phrases, such as “social distancing”, the current situation invites us to think again about more familiar ones, like “the personal is political”. If this is a war, the frontline is not the health service, it’s our own bodies. So the decisions that we make within our own sphere of activity and influence will matter as much as those made by Government; businesses and civil society organisations.
The personal dimensions of all this have become apparent in the domain of livelihood almost as urgently as in that of health. As a freelancer, I’m fortunate to be working on a couple of projects, which (touch wood) should be able at least to tick over, so I’m not going to bleat about the fact that the scheduled publication date of my first book, Better Decisions is ten weeks away, and therefore in doubt. Neither am I going to be so presumptuous as to attempt to overlay my ideas onto the bigger political, socio-economic and logistical choices facing our leaders.
What I shall do is to offer up just a couple of thoughts, in the hope that one of them might trigger something useful for you. The first is simply to say that, whilst many choices – even quite significant ones – are made semi-automatically, without great thought or analysis, the strangeness and immediacy of current circumstances means that we’ll probably become more conscious of our decisions. This is generally a good thing, but I recognise that, at a time when we might be having to juggle how to stay in touch with loved ones and how to pay the rent with unexpected childcare challenges, or even whether and when it’s ok to go to a shop, we could quickly become overwhelmed.
A classic piece of advice, in such a situation, might be to write a list of the key decisions that need to be made and work through them systematically. But there’s a danger that just seeing the length of the list could add to the sense of overload, so I would recommend a further step, based on an old but effective framework.
The opening chapter of Better Decisions is entitled ‘Decisions About Decisions’ and, amongst other things, it points to the value of being able to decide when NOT to decide. In normal circumstances, there could be lots of reasons why you might actively choose to defer a decision: perhaps you don’t have sufficient information yet, or you may need to involve others before landing on a course of action. Right now, simply assessing the relative urgency and importance of each decision might help to ease the pressure.
If you draw a matrix, with Importance on the vertical axis and Urgency on the Horizontal, you’ll create four quadrants: Top Right is Urgent & Important; Top Left is Important but less Urgent; Bottom Right is Urgent but less Important, and Bottom Left is less Urgent & Important. Of course, the temptation will be to put almost everything in the top right hand box, so to guard against that, work out how many items represent 20% of your list (if there are 10 decisions, that’s 2) and force yourself to place at least that number into each of the four boxes. Now look at the whole matrix, and choose which three you’re going to focus on before you get to anything else. The mysterious bit is that these may not all need to come from the top right quadrant. By allowing yourself to see the whole picture in this way, you’re in a good position to use a combination of head, heart and gut to make better decisions, not least about where to invest your energy and attention.
In my work with the remarkable people who coach our Olympic and Paralympic athletes, I see them working – explicitly or implicitly – with a similar way of organising their choices. The vertical axis still measures Importance, but here, the horizontal relates to the level of Influence that the coach and/or athletes have over that challenge. You’ll often hear sports people talking about the need to “control the controllables”. With things you can’t control, you may just have to put mitigation in place, or even go with the flow and see what happens. Undoubtedly, this is an approach which many of us can usefully adopt in the coming weeks and months. We’ll worry less about the things over which we have little or no influence if we’re focusing our energies in the places where we can make a difference.
Like most approaches to better decisions, both of these frameworks are designed to help us see more clearly. Much of my work in organisations and teams, and many of the techniques within Better Decisions focus on tackling two of the greatest enemies of clear-sightedness: haste and busy-ness.
Having said that, there’s a good chance that these blockers are going to be less of an issue for many of us over the coming weeks. Just as the absence of gondolas, cruise ships and everything in between has led to a revelatory clearing of the sediment in Venice’s canals – and the appearance in the newly sparkling waters of all kinds of fish, crabs and even dolphins – so the requirement to stay in one place, and the enforced removal of so many of the activities which generally fill our days, may provide opportunities for us to notice things about our own context, ambitions, opportunities or assets, which are usually lost in the swirl.
On that basis, this might be the moment for you to turn your attention to some of those Top Left decisions: the ones that you know are important, but have not been urgent enough to get to the top of your list. It may also be the perfect time to publish a book called Better Decisions. Excuse me, while I email my publisher!
Chris Grant has worked with more than 2,000 leadership and operational teams on strategy and performance. He sits on the board of Sport England, and was a Lead Tutor on UK Sport’s Elite Coach Programme – a three-year learning journey for top coaches in Olympic, Paralympic and professional sports. His first book, Better Decisions is due to be published by Quarto in June 2020.