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The Mechanics of Effective Decision Making

Jul 10, 2020 | 12m

Gain Actionable Insights Into:

  • How to make better decisions when you don’t have enough information, time - or both
  • Why accepting that you can’t control everything will make you more productive
  • What you can do to think through situations more rationally


Working on the Fly

First, let’s define what “working on the fly” actually means. It doesn’t mean winging it, or flying by the seat of your pants, and it’s certainly not random guesswork. In business scenarios, working on the fly implies a leader’s ability to make effective decisions in situations where they may not have all the facts, or enough time to think through all the variables.

Have you watched an expert chess player at work? When they look at the board, they see many outcomes unfolding in front of them, and thus they can think a few steps ahead. How are they able to do this? Through years of practice, expert chess players build up a repository of experiential knowledge. Over time, this mastery of small moves builds into a solid database that empowers them to make better decisions when they face an opponent.

Someone who is playing chess for the first time may know the rules, but won’t have an experiential database to tap into. As a result, if this individual were to try and play the game ‘off the cuff’, it’s likely that they’d lose. To work on the fly, you need to have the experience to back it up.

Experiential Knowledge

Now what if you could find a way to insert a database of experience into your mind to expedite the process? Let’s look at some examples.

One of the challenges that law enforcement faces across the world and especially in emerging countries is that of human trafficking. The police and NGOs have tried various ways to safeguard vulnerable children from human traffickers; especially because the victims are often young girls who don’t have the experiential knowledge to identify red flags when they are being solicited by human traffickers. However, the law enforcement authorities discovered that the traffickers would have one common feature in all of their “recruitment pitches” regardless of the region in which the trafficking was taking place. The girls would be specifically told not to tell their family about the “opportunity” being presented by the traffickers.

The police then taught children in schools to recognise that particular sentence as a red flag, and to alert their teachers or families immediately if they were approached. In this simple mechanism it was possible to transfer an “algorithm of danger” to a child who did not know the ways of the world yet.

In the Armed Forces, troops and subunits the challenge of training in micro algorithms is dealt with by implementing the concept of battle drills and battle procedures.

Battle drills are the actions that an individual has to perform when they come under fire. The soldier is supposed to dash, duck down, crawl and return fire. In business scenarios too, there are similar battle drills for conducting routine tasks such as setting up interviews or responding to support requests. Battle procedures, on the other hand, are simultaneous actions that the company takes to deal with an operational challenge.

For example, when a sales head goes to make a pitch to a client for a complicated solution, that team needs to be backed by solid information about the timelines of delivery, the complexity of challenges, financial costs and risks. So, there will be several teams that will have to collaborate to provide this information to the sales team. Battle procedures involve collaboration between several members in a team and external entities as well.

So, if you haven’t built up the experiential database to make decisions on the fly, you can make up for it by perfecting your battle drills. This way, you will be responding to the situation in an agreed-upon and systematic manner.

As a general rule, the more experience you gain in a particular area, the more skilled you’ll be at making effective decisions on the fly. That said, while there is a place for experiential knowledge, there is also a strong case to be made for transference knowledge.

For example, you cannot simply count on experience to know that if you don’t pack a parachute properly, it won’t open up. That’s the last experience you’ll have! In some situations, you will need to rely on transference knowledge. If you’re going to be posted to a province in Canada, you should speak to someone who lives there to understand how you can better prepare for your move.

You should also be aware of the limitations of your experience. When I set up the National Intelligence Grid, some areas such as social media were completely unknown to me. You should have the humility to accept that you cannot make decisions on the fly when you’re lacking in experience. In these cases, you should consult with people who have the relevant expertise and can analyse the situation accurately.

Making Better Decisions

So how can you start making better decisions when you’re faced with unexpected circumstances?

First, you should always look at the situation from various angles. Play devil’s advocate. While you may make your decision intuitively, try to think neutrally and look at the bigger picture. Many times what seems like a good solution ab initio can actually create far bigger problems. Here is an example.

A few years ago in Gurgaon, a woman was gang-raped on her way back from Sahara Mall. In response, the government made a rule that all female employees had to be provided with company transportation if they worked later than 8.00pm. On one hand, it seems like a great decision that was made on the fly, one that seems quite intuitive. Yet, the implementation of such a rule would actually cause far more economic and social damage to women than it would help. Here is why.

As a result of this new rule, most companies would simply not hire or employ women. As the cost of hiring women increased, companies would find it easier to replace them with male employees. Ultimately, women would be losing out. Especially for women who are sole wage earners for their families, or who move from small villages to big cities to support their families, losing their jobs would have devastating consequences.

And this happens because the long-term implications especially of policy decisions are often not thought through.

You should also classify when you will be able to make a decision on the fly. For example, you could agree to make such decisions when:

  • Time is a constraint
  • Stakes are low
  • The implications of going wrong aren’t too serious
  • You’re able to easily correct any mistakes that are made

Similarly, make a list of situations in which you simply cannot wing it. Financial compliance statements, for instance, are no place to be working on the fly.

Let’s say a client approaches you to build a software solution. At the moment, you don’t have the immediate resources to execute the project. Yet you have a methodology, a pipeline, and the core competencies are in place. In this case, you can decide on the fly to take up the project. However, if the client asks you for a discounted rate on the solutions, you will need to consider expectations, fees, profit margins, and so on. This is not a decision you can make on the fly.

Wherever possible, try to get the information and background you need in order to make a decision. Don’t fall in love with winging it. If you can defer making a decision until you can thoroughly evaluate a situation, do so. Also, when you seem obstinately convinced that you’re making the right decision, take 24 hours to sit on it before you take action.

Make Time to Evaluate

You’ll make countless decisions throughout the course of any given day. Take some time at the end of your day to reflect on how you’ve made your decisions. You could choose to write in a journal or even verbally record your thoughts.

Replay your day, and pause to think about the decisions you’ve made. What was your thought process that led you to make the decisions you did? Why did you say yes or no to something? Why did you tip a waiter 500 rupees, but haggle with an auto driver over 50 rupees? In the process of evaluating your decisions, you will start uncovering your own irrationalities and thereby figure out your own patterns.

Once you understand your own patterns, you can build habits that can help you consciously turn things around. For example, you might decide not to check your phone before you go for your morning run because you evaluate and realize that if you receive news that bothers you, you won’t feel like working out. Or maybe you realise that you become a poor negotiator towards the end of the day when your energy levels are low. In this case you might decide to schedule strategic tasks earlier in the day to make sure you’re performing at your optimum.

Emotional States

Another factor that greatly impacts how well you work on the fly is your emotional state. Someone who is generally performing at their peak will make decisions differently from someone who is struggling to find meaning in the work they’re doing.

Imagine you’re on a road trip to Leh-Ladakh with your friends. You’ve all decided to go on a trek. You’re feeling upbeat: you’re well rested, healthy, you’ve packed energy bars and water, and you’ve just received news that you’ve been promoted. Along your trek, you come across a fork in the road. One path is marked and familiar, but the other is unmarked. Given your state of mind, you’re more likely to experiment with the unknown and be open to adventure.

Flip this situation around. Suppose you’re on the same trek, but you’re cold, miserable, haven’t had sufficient rest, and have a lot of work piling up at the office. When you come across the juncture, you’re far less likely to want to experiment with the unknown.

Your state of mind clearly influences your ability to work with insufficient information. What can you do about this? Don’t waste your energy on unimportant or trivial things.

“You wake up with a limited amount of mojo each morning. Be smart about how you use it."

Good habits and will-power are muscles, but like muscles they get tired and overworked too. Deciding to wake up and go for a run in the morning – that takes effort. This is why busy, successful people like Mukesh Ambani, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs wear the same clothes every day. The simple act of deciding what to wear decreases their mojo, which they’d rather spend on making effective decisions through their day. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

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Raghu Raman

Former CEO

National Intelligence Grid of India



Strategic Thinking