A Simple Wish
If I had three wishes then having clarity of thought would be one of them. If I had one wish this would be it.
It’s certainly not easy to have clarity of thought when trying to make leadership decisions, weigh up options, deal with difficult situations. Doubt, uncertainty, fast-changing circumstances, conflicting advice, hostility, fear of the consequences. They all play a part in clouding our judgement.
You can’t have clarity of thought just because you want it. For sure, age and experience help, but there are some things you can do to make you less uncertain.
What Makes a Good Decision?
Recognise that making a good decision takes time, consideration and information, so gather as much of each as you can. Don’t make a decision any earlier than you have to and remember that when you do make a decision, that you are taking it with the best information available to you at the time. Situations change and a decision you took even in the recent past may come to look odd or even plain wrong, so it’s important you have the confidence in your judgement at the time.
Think Things Through
Not surprisingly, things seem clearer when you understand the detail, know what the options are, have a good grip on the risks associated with any course of action. Usually getting all of this down in some way allows you to process all of that information. There are a number of techniques. My personal favourites are mind maps and forcefield analysis. You can easily look them up to learn more and there are plenty of others. Get the information down and think about it. Let the clarity emerge. It might come to you in a flash, but it just as well might not. Clarity of thought takes time … and practice, lots of practice. The classic model in this area is Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats – definitely worth reading.
Write it Down
Record your decisions. This gives you a reference point to go back to. It allows you to record supporting information to ensure you have consensus across your team and should you need it, later on, evidence to justify what you did.
Most project management methodologies use a formal decisions log, which I have always found particularly useful. A title, details of the situation, decision and rationale, date – that’s all it needs to be. Use a spreadsheet, a SharePoint list, an app, whatever you like.
How Important Can it Be?
Keep things in context. You won’t always get things right, so learn to differentiate between minor and major decisions both in risk and consequences. How likely is it that things will go wrong and what can I do to try to avoid that? And what are the consequences of things going wrong in terms of cost, reputation, other people’s circumstances, the business impact? Just how clear do you need to be before making the decision. If it’s crucial and you need more time, take it. An essential part of clarity of thought is not rushing.
Equally, don’t be flippant; every decision is important in some way and to someone. So do you very best to arrive at an outcome or a decision point that you are happy with and that you can justify. In other words, your thinking is clear, but recognise that delay can be equally damaging, especially in a crisis.
Don’t Be Alone
Gather opinions from trusted colleagues. Sometimes you might feel alone, but that’s rarer then you’d think if you remember to communicate. Everyone is busy with their own priorities, but most are pleased to help if you ask in the right way. Don’t abdicate responsibility. Run ideas past others, make sure you say ‘here are my thoughts, what do you think?’.
Pretty soon you’ll identify people you can trust and seek their opinions. Once you have a network of people you know well then even when they’re not around (and they never will be at that crucial time!), then you can ask yourself ‘what would so and so have done?’.
Draw on your Brand
If you’ve created a personal brand then you know the attributes and behaviours that you think are important for you to demonstrate and that you want others to see in you. You will have identified favourable traits, things that allow you to do a great job and get you noticed. So bring those attributes to your thinking and decision making. After all, that brand is a representation of you at your very best.
Take your Time
Don’t be rushed to make a decision, take time to reflect and make sure you have gathered as much information as you can. But guard against indecision and set yourself a decision date in advance. That gives you a deadline. If you really have to make a snap decision, just take a moment to make sure you really have to and then make it – make it with the information you have available to you at that time. Even in a crisis log it as soon as you can; you need to remember the circumstances as they were when you reached the clarity of thought.
Live and Learn to Improve Your Clarity of Thought
Do everything you can to think clearly and make good decisions. Look back through your decisions logs and think about how things were before, during and after you took that decision. Not just when things went badly, but when they went well too.
We’ve all met the manager who won’t accept any mistakes ‘on my watch’, but it’s not always as simple as that. Analyse things that didn’t go as well as you’d hoped, but don’t dwell on them. Live life statistically; with preparation and effort things will go to plan most of the time, but the odd blip is OK. It has to be.
With thought and reflection your clarity of thought will improve over time, but don’t expect it every time, just most of it.
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