Making ACE decisions

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Have you ever worked with a genuinely brilliant decision maker?

Chris Lake
Head of professional development, Chris Lake

Someone whose decisions are more than just shrewd, but whose decisions are also timely, courageous, and even inspiring prompts to action?  I have, and I value it hugely.  One or two of my bosses have demonstrated the rare skill of almost always knowing not just what to decide, but when to decide it.  They’ve known when to be immediate and decisive, and when to be circumspect and politically judicious, yet always having a tendency toward decisions that lead to action.

I’ve worked all too often with the other sort too.  Managers who are secretly fearful of making a decision that might actually have an impact – fearful that it could go wrong and thus they might be revealed as the culpable buffoon that called that misguided shot.  Instead, these (non) leaders call for more evidence and arrange more meetings.  They often use the right words: ‘inclusive’, ‘consensus’, ‘prudent’, ‘politically sensitive’.  And yet we know that it’s really not these words that are motivating their delay – it’s self-interest.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m passionate about inclusivity in leadership to truly engage the people that have to put up with the decisions we make.  However, all too often such words are used more as a defence than a strategy.  In avoiding errors of commission, such faint leaders make errors of omission.  Sitting on the fence will eventually only give you splinters where you don’t want splinters!  The real talent, in a world where there’s infinite data and none of it perfect, is to know when good enough is good enough and it’s time to jump off the fence and into action.

A mnemonic that might help you be more sagacious (great word isn’t it – it means sage-like and wise) is ACE.  When faced with a possible decision – be ACE:

Analytical  What? Take apart the data, people’s views, and ask what is it all saying?
Critical So what? Prod and probe the ideas (yours, other people’s, reading and research) and judge the merit of it.
Evaluative What now? Where’s the value?  What’s the most useful and worthwhile course of action?

I fear there’s often a little too much of the first two steps (critical analysis) and not enough of the last one (evaluation) in the NHS – a lean towards review and reflect as opposed to action and implementation.  This is just as true at a national and system-wide level as it is at a local and manager-specific level.  It might even be a cultural norm: ‘When in doubt, write or commission a report / review / inquiry / roundtable discussion’ (delete as appropriate).  And whilst engaged in these reviews I’m sure it feels like real work.  But it’s not.

I’m not knocking the Francis reports (1 or 2), the Keogh reviews, or the review currently under way by Stuart Rose (ex Marks and Sparks) whom I met a few weeks ago.  It’s just that reviews in and of themselves don’t move things on.  That takes leadership – decisive leadership whose intent is impact.

Neither too am I particularly knocking research.  I value good research, and I respect the world of academia when it isn’t simply academic (definition: ‘Adjective: not of practical relevance; of only theoretical interest’).  What I don’t value is pretend research that’s really a group of people asking each other what they already believe and publishing the results of the discussion as something that’s in some way new or insightful.  I value research that is practically targeted and action oriented with implementation at its heart.

Our Healthcare Leadership Model is a case in point – we went into the field to find and interview exemplars of leadership that engage staff and promote patient care.  We then built the findings into an easy to understand model and developed that into a practical tool appearing very soon; an online self assessment (free of charge by the way) and a 360° feedback process.

I guess I’m saying that the best decision makers, and the best leaders, are like pracademics (yes, it’s a made up word – but it’s a good one).  They recognise that, as Kirt Lewin said ‘There is nothing so practical as a good theory!’  They know the value of review and reflection.  They engage people with inclusive practices to promote real involvement and your skin in the game.  And they take action.

So, next time you’re invited to a review meeting or a roundtable discussion, ask yourself – is this really ACE?

5 thoughts on “Making ACE decisions

  1. It’s certainly a skill to learn when to act immediately and when to be more circumspect and one for me that I keen to develop. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of waiting for more information and delay decisions. The fear of getting things wrong can be paralysing. Louis Gerstner’s book “Who Says Elephants Can’t Jump” highlights what appears to be some very brave and timely decision making that helped turn IBM around in the 90’s. Decisions underpinned by experience and strategic knowledge. I recently read a quote also from the Head of Tatta Steel “I don’t believe in making the right decisions, I believe in making decisions and making them right”. The sentiment with this I interpret to mean he has a tendency for action, a useful mantra to help avoid indecision. Any tips and advice would be gratefully received.

  2. A brilliantly written and poignant piece, well done Chris. So true and like you I’ve worked with leaders (I use that word loosely) that procrastinate and won’t make decisions about anything wanting more and more evidence and interminable meetings. Love the quote from the head of Tatta Steel, “I don’t believe in making right decisions. I believe in making decisions and making them right” the question is how do we empower and enable these fearful and indecisive leaders, of which there are many in the NHS, to have the confidence in themselves and the teams they lead to make decisions that are impactful and if the decision does not produce the required results, not to blame and shame but to learn and move forward from a place of experience and deeper understanding of themselves, others and what might work in future. Keep writing, always a great thought provoking read.

  3. Insightful and thought provoking as always Chris. I think I made an ACE decsion yesterday – I will try and do more!
    To paraphrase another great leader of our times ‘Sometimes it’s better to make the wrong decision, it’s better than no decsion at all’ Tony Sopranno (PS – don’t use him as arole model!)

  4. Such an easy mantra to remember, I knew about ‘so what’ and think the added ‘what now’ enables a simple acronym ACE, to focus attention on decision making that is informed.

  5. Valuable information. Lucky me I found your website by accident, and I’m shocked why this twist of fate did not came about in advance! I bookmarked it.