Executives, the authors argue, are very good at decision making if the objectives are clear, and if the choice is between a set of specific, predefined options. But when the decisions are complex, business leaders tend to home in quickly on a couple of options, list the pros and cons, and spend the bulk of their time calculating — or deliberating about — how the competing courses of action stack up. They rarely take the time to frame decisions thoroughly or explore the full scope of options.
Unfortunately, when decisions are framed this way, the authors contend, the outcome is frequently suboptimal. An effective way to work against this, they say, is to make better use of the classic decision matrix, which allows for the comparison of different options using the same set of predefined criteria. The authors argue that the decision matrix isn’t just an evaluation tool but also a process tool that can help executives extend their decision frame beyond the obvious options and criteria and help them think “out of the box.”
According to the authors, the decision matrix can be useful at key stages in the decision-making process to (1) frame decisions, (2) make concrete choices, and (3) communicate solutions. It allows leaders to identify potential gaps and logical flaws in their reasoning, facilitate dialogue in the executive team, and build support and buy-in in the wider organization. To expand the decision frame in a systematic way, the authors note, executives should understand two concepts: mental buckets and golden cuts.
Mental buckets are vehicles for clustering similar ideas into related yet distinct categories. While brainstorming is a common way for teams to generate lots of ideas, ideas need to be organized at some point. Categorizing them into mental buckets helps people spot gaps and overlaps — in terms of both options and criteria. The cognitive act of creating new mental buckets serves to stimulate creativity.
The golden cut is a term the authors use to describe the most difficult trade-off in any decision. To find the golden cut, decision makers may need to reframe the problem by moving either up or down a level to identify the underlying tension. Identifying the golden cut is vital not just for framing decisions but also for engaging with key stakeholders. Being mindful about choosing and communicating the first cut on the criteria dimension is likely to create more openness and willingness to engage; the relevant criteria will be highlighted at the beginning rather than as an afterthought.