The Art Of Decision Making

By Robert E. Bingham

Decision is choosing between the alternatives in order to accomplish the objective in the most effective way.

A Case Study

Jimmy Jones is a home missionary in the inner city. Prepared. Committed. A hard worker. He has a vision for the ministry of the mission center to change the lives of persons in the community. Several new programs have been instituted under his leadership. He appreciates the leadership of the association of churches and particularly Bob Martin, the director of missions.

Only one problem continually faces Jimmy: The mission center does not have enough funds to underwrite the program he has envisioned for the community. There is always too much month at the end of the money. When discussing this with Bob he found a willing listener, and sometimes Bob indicated to Jimmy that there was more money coming next year. However, this was
primarily wishful thinking. The associational budget was a tight one. Not only was there no “fat” in it, but sometimes a few “bones” were missing.

Jimmy mistook Bob’s concern to mean approval to purchase some much needed items. One day a bill for $325 was received at the associational office for some recreational equipment. It put Bob in a bind to dig up enough new money to cover the unexpected (and unbudgeted) purchase. He weathered the crisis and decided not to counsel with Jimmy about the seriousness of such irresponsible actions. Why cause a stir for $325? The equipment was badly needed.

In a few weeks Jimmy spent another $265 for a used motion picture projector. This was almost the straw that broke Bob’s back, since the associational office had a good projector that was under-used. The frustration level of both men continued to rise.

A few months later Jimmy asked Bob for permission to buy a new food freezer to replace the worn-out freezer. Bob knew there was a need, but there was no money available at that time. He considered the possibility of presenting the need to the missions committees of several churches. Before he could present his logic to the committees, the office received a bill for $705 for a new freezer. You guessed it . . . Jimmy had bought one.

Bob was beside himself. Something had to be done immediately. He telephoned his supervisor to get some advice. (“Advice” meaning permission to overspend his budget.) While sympathetic with the problem, the supervisor could not approve the overspending.

Bob finally decided to bell the cat and talk through the whole problem of overspending with Jimmy. In the process he said that he really wanted to allow the overspending but his supervisor would not approve. He failed to get to the heart of the problem: Jimmy was somewhat irresponsible in his expenditures and budget control. What transpired was additional hassling and more frustration. Bob could not force himself to make a hard decision and put an end to the overspending.

Is it any wonder that Jimmy continues to overspend? And Bob continues to fret? Do you see some classic traps in this  case? Could you rationalize some of them if you were Bob? What decisions would you have made if you were Bob? or Jimmy?

Locating the Traps

* I’m called to serve the Lord not to make so many decisions.

* Decisions are easy if you have all the information.

* Refer the hard decisions to your supervisors since they have more experience.

* Delay a decision if you can until a crisis makes the options more obvious.

* The more responsible the position, the more decisions need to be made.

* Some administrators are not involved in decision making.

* Delay a decision until you are sure you are right.

* When in doubt, say yes. It is a positive approach.

* Good planning ensures good decisions.

* Resources generally determine your decisions.

Major Trap-Delay the tough decisions as long as possible, they may go away. Sometimes thing just seem to work out themselves. It takes so much emotion to make a tough decision. If I make a wrong decision, it affects morale.

Religious leaders may be tempted at this point more than any other group. Human nature makes everyone tend to avoid hard decisions. But Christian leaders should be more sensitive and caring than others. Since most tough decisions will come as bad news to some people, there is the temptation to try to eliminate the possibility of disappointment by having no news.

The key indicator is that low morale is affected more often by delayed decisions than by negative decisions. A morale problem has been defined by Dr. James Hayes as a conflict between a personal objective long-nourished and a management decision long-delayed. In discussing this concept in American Management Association seminars, he gives the following illustration.

While preparing to go on a family outing, he was careful to avoid making the other members unhappy by deciding where they would drive. So he asked them where they would like to go for a Saturday’s outing. Each one indicated they did not care. But he knew that the son wanted to go to the beach. The daughter wanted to visit the museum. His wife needed to visit the shopping
center. He just wanted to get out of the house, so any of the three alternatives were acceptable to him.

As they backed out of the driveway, each member of the family had a personal objective for the day. Yet, they did not want to impose their choice upon the other family members. In order to go to any one of the three destinations, they would normally drive to a common intersection. As the car moved towards the unknown destination of the day, each member was thinking “I hope . . . I hope . . . I hope.” The nearer to the intersection they got, they began to think, “We must . . . We must. . . We must! Everyone was happy, until Jim turned at the intersection towards the beach. The son smiled and thought, great. The female contingent frowned, and thought, phooey. Jim gritted his teeth and uttered, “Why did I wait so long to make the decision?” It was a case of a personal objective long-nourished and a management decision long delayed. He had a morale problem on his hands because of delaying the decision and raising the hopes of each member. Jim says his family is reasonable and would not have fretted if they had known before getting into the car that they were going to a destination other than their first choice.

Other traps-1. More information makes it easy to make hard decisions. All I need is the facts. Once I have them, it is only a matter of weighing them and using common sense. Sounds  logical, doesn’t it? As in most administrative traps, it has some truth to it, just enough to lead you on until you are at the bottom looking up.

Television detective, Jack Webb, coined the phrase, “The facts, ma’am. Just give me the facts.” Let us look at what some others, more qualified to speak to us than the Dragnet detective, have to say. Henry Clay said, “Statistics are no substitute for judgment.” For the Christian approach, Fulton Oursler said, “In making our decisions, we must use the brains that God has given us. But we must also use our hearts which He also gave us.” Surely, when the moment of decision comes for the Christian, there are more reflections to be made than from the
mind only. What about the heart? The Spirit? Faith goes beyond reason.

How then do the facts help us? They help us make better decisions. No computer, even a sophisticated one, can ever make a decision. They affect the quality of the matter. Hard decisions are never easy to make. (Soft decisions are easy to make.) Tough decisions come out of loving, disciplined emotions. It is the will that motivates us to follow through to the best conclusion on the weightier decisions of life.

2. Executives make the most decisions. After all, they are the most experienced. That’s what they are paid to do. They make policy. I do the work. Don’t bother me with decisions. Sound familiar? From either pole, it has a validity. The truth is that the more responsible the position, the fewer decisions to be made.

Consider the anecdote of the husband who says, “I make the major decisions of our family. My wife makes the minor ones. She decides the smaller things; car purchase, house lo- cation and decoration, and family budgeting. I decide how we react to the national debt, foreign trade, and ecology.

Executives of multimillion dollar conglomerates are expected to make only a few decisions a month. Naturally, these decisions are of far-reaching consequences. The first-line managers may make ten decisions a day of a much easier magnitude.

Decisions need to be delegated even more than tasks. The decisions then pyramid towards the top when the chief executive takes the accumulation of input and mulls over his decision as long as necessary to make a good choice. Syrus, the Roman philosopher, said, “That should be considered long, which can be decided only once.”

Administration requires decision making. A state executive director may be deciding on the merits of recommending the purchase of a two-million-dollar conference facility. A mission pastor may be choosing between two dozen chairs at $5.95 each. Both are administrators making decisions.

3. The best decision-maker is the boss. He has the wider view. He might as well make it now because he is going to review my decision anyway. This is a first cousin to the former trap and deals with similar logic and consequences.

The fact is, usually the boss cannot always make the best decision, He is too far removed from the scene of the action. He just does not know what is going on at that point. If he did, he probably would not be able to understand and interpret it in the light of the decision.

Consider the decision to be made on the height of the windows in the Children’s Division of the new educational building. The pastor and the architect may agree that all windows should be a certain height from the floor to give symmetry from the outside. The minister of education may have specialized in youth and adult work and readily agrees that the standard height is obviously the proper choice.

But what about the lady who works with the small children? What does she think? The pastor might well ask, Does it make any difference? Aren’t windows all at the same height? Why not ask her? She works in that area. It may flatter her to be given the opportunity to agree. And what does she say? Windowsills should be considerably lower for small children, so they can see outdoors.

Decisions should be made at the point nearest the action. Good choices are made at the level which will help ensure good decisions at the executive level, not to mention the confidence it gives to the people on the local scene.

4. Decisions are best made at the moment of crisis. It is only then that most of the facts surface. The pressure of the moment will motivate decisiveness. The best decisions come prior to a crisis and can be decided without the pressure of deadlines and emotion. The word crisis dictates urgency and maybe the decision requires additional information and time for reflecting upon the options available. Decisions do not demand snap judgments. Rather, they accrue gradually to the moment of decision.

When the energy crisis of 1974, coupled with the inflation recession crisis, brought almost every organization to their knees, some prayed, some pleaded, some lost their furniture to the lending agency. The organizations that were least affected were those who had made some decisions prior to the crisis.

I recall the services section at the Home Mission Board spending considerable time in a “business game”: What would we do if our income were reduced by 10 percent tomorrow? Not only was it a helpful exercise in emergency budgeting, but it gave us some good decisions made without stress and pressure. Since we were not faced with a severe reduction in income, was it worth the time? You decide. We had an emergency plan in the files that could be activated at any moment. It provided a reappraisal of our budget priorities. It was management insurance against poor decisions. Yes, Virginia, necessity is still the mother of invention!

5. Refer all tough decisions to your supervisor. Let him decide for you. His position gives the perspectives. This is a spin-off of the second trap listed. Its uniqueness is only the difficult choices tend to be referred to your supervisor.

Stop and think about the decisions you made last month. There were some enjoyable ones. You were glad to make those. They made others happy as well as yourself. Some decisions were harder to make, but you wanted to have control over the outcome, so you were glad to wear the hat of decision maker.

Here comes a trap. Here is a decision that you know should be a no response. But you do not want to make the requestor unhappy, so you refer it to your supervisor. Is that fair? Your supervisor has enough decisions to make. Why increase his load with a decision that rightfully belongs to you? Besides, if he must make all of your decisions, why does he need you on the management team?

Beware! There is a natural temptation to want to say yes to the requestor when you know the answer should be no. Whatever you do, do not get caught in the trap of telling your supervisee, “I felt the decision should have been yes, but I referred it to my supervisor and he said, no.” That really puts your boss in a bad light. After all, you should have made the no decision and had the courage to administer it.

6. Goal setting and budgeting are necessary evils. I want to spend my time working with people and not shuffling papers on a desk. Somebody else can make those theoretical decisions. I prefer to make mine with life and blood situations. This is a related trap to those found in chapters 1 and 2. But it has some specific applications.

Goals and budgets are road maps toward your organizational or personal objective. They are tools in getting your job done easier and better. Without them you are likely to expend a lot of energy going the wrong direction and not even approaching your objective.

Turning your back on these management tools will limit your effectiveness. It is almost like entering a race with a millstone about your neck. Financial resources are usually important in attaining your objective. Why be caught without enough funds or with misdirected funds? A little planning and careful, priority budgeting could be very helpful.

The person-oriented administrator will quickly learn that more persons can be helped in the long run by setting goals and budgets in priority fashion.

You may hear some persuasive administrators talk about putting enough fat in their budget requests for safety’s sake. They say it is always better to have allowed for income shrinkage by padding your expense requests. Their motto might be: Good budgeting, like prime beef, will include a gracious amount of fat. But wait a few years until the record shows they have annually fattened up their requests. Not only do they personally suffer but also their work must suffer for their administrative sins.


Before reading the section on how to avoid the traps, test yourself. Maybe the foregoing rhetoric has not focused on a specific situation. Judge your actions of the last few years.

True or False

* I tend to avoid decisions when possible. Basically, I feel if I have all the information, the decision can easily be made.

* The emotion of the moment plays into my decisions.

* I wish I were the boss so I wouldn’t have to bother with decision making.

* I tend to give positive decisions because I do not like to disappoint people.

* I will avoid taking risks at almost any cost. I always expect good decisions from subordinates.

* I try to be decisive.

* I try to be incisive.

* My philosophy is, You win a few and you lose a few.

* All decisions should be made before night falls.

* I seek the advice of others when the decision falls outside my field of expertise. Generally, resources are now more determined by decisions than vice versa.

How to Avoid Decision Making Traps

There are countless quotations available that would serve as a guide to avoid traps. Perhaps Chester Bowles gave as good advice as any when he said, “When you approach a (decision), strip yourself of preconceived opinions and prejudice, assemble and learn the facts of the situation, make the decision which seems to you to be the most honest, and then stick to it.”

One of the most stimulating declarations of Future Shock was the dramatic change in the relationship of decision to resources. Generally in the past, resources determined decisions. We counted our assets and then decided which course to take. Tofler predicts that the future will demand of us to make good decisions that will generate adequate resources to make greater decisions. This should catch the eye of the Christian church. Of all organizations in the world, we should be willing to make decisions on faith, regardless of the financial and human resources available.

Historically, the church has moved on the shoulders of decision. Think of the landmark decisions made by Jesus, Paul, the Antioch church, the Council of Nicaea, Martin Luther, Roger Williams, and countless recent and contemporary leaders.

General Guidelines-1. An administrator is a person who decides- sometimes right, sometimes wrong. A good administrator decides right more times than wrong. Decisiveness and wisdom are a part of his makeup. Since few decisions are final, you have the option of making a later decision to refine a poor one.

2. The person who insists on making perfect decisions either never decides or suffers constant frustration. H. W. Andrews puts it in perspective.

While an open mind is priceless, it is priceless only when its owner has the courage to make a final decision which closes the mind for action after the process of viewing all sides of the question has been completed. Failure to make a decision after due consideration of all the facts will quickly brand a man as unfit for a position of responsibility. Not all of your decisions will be correct. None of us is perfect. But if you get into the habit of making decisions, experience will develop your judgment to a point where more and more of your decisions will be right. After all, it is better to be right 51 go of the time and get something done, than it is to get nothing done because you fear to reach a decision.

3. Great decision usually precipitate from a choice of alternatives, the best of the good or the least of the bad options that are available at the moment. Good for whom? for me? for you? for the group? for our objective? for the kingdom of God? Bad for whom and so forth. Maybe the first decision made is to decide on what needs to be decided.

4. Conditions of certainty breed potentially bad decisions. Kenneth E. Boulding writes in Technology Review,

Evaluation and decision strategy, and the quality of decisions in general, depend very much on degree of uncertainty of the items to be decided. The greater the uncertainty, the higher value which should be placed on decisions which leave future options open-that is, on non-commitment. Decision making under high degrees of uncertainty is a very different kind of beast from decision making under low degrees of uncertainty. Absolute certainty is unknown in the real world.

An important source of bad decisions is illusions of certainty, which often lead to decisive action which zeros in on disaster. Computerized and numerical models, especially those with fancy diagrams and printouts, are almost certain to produce illusions of certainty and may therefore lead to bad decisions.

When efficiency leads to a loss of adaptability, and information leads to illusions of certainty, and centralization leads to both of these, we have a magnificent design for extinction!

5. You are able to evaluate whether a decision is good or bad more in terms of months after D day, rather than in days after the decision. It is more like interpreting history from a book than it is
reading a current event in the newspaper.

6. Making one good decision is worth a week’s work. Developing a good decision-maker is worth a year’s work. This is a further refinement of the management principle of getting things done through other people. It is a paraphrase of the slogan of the sixties, “Give a man a fish and you have filled his stomach for a day. Teach him how to fish and you have filled his stomach for a life time.” Trusting others with some of our decisions is most difficult. But it can be most rewarding. Trust a contagious word. To trust a person with your automobile provides him with encouragement. To trust him with your decision-making process is even a greater encouragement.

Specific Guidelines-1. Understand what generally causes bad decisions. This list was found in Supervision.

* Lack of information-Insufficient facts lead to guessing, and a wrong guess may be disastrous.

* Lack of time-More time to get facts, to weigh and decide, increases the chance for a wise decision.

* Presence of emotion-Emotions are the main cause of bias; when emotion is stronger than reason, anything can happen.

* Presence of fear-Running scared often influences decisions adversely.

* Presence of risk-When risk is great, decisions may be overcautious and weak.

* Lack of attention-When a problem is not considered serious, it may be lightly passed off or ignored.

* Lack of authority-Responsibility without authority leads to soft, unenforceable decisions.

* Lack of skill in decision making-Some supervisors simply are not aware of how to go about making good decisions.

Judgments are questioned most often when the background and reasoning which led to the decision are not clear.

2. Understand what will help you make sound decisions. Loen gives some helpful suggestions in Manage More By Doing Less.

* “Tailor your decision-making methods to your personal strengths and weaknesses. As in everyone, you are a unique individual with certain innate characteristics and with a combination of knowledge and experience. You have certain strengths and weaknesses.” This helps to explain why a genius in one field may be a complete flop in another. Henry Ford, for example, was an engineering genius, but his management methods almost ruined his company.

* “Make sure your decision is needed.” If it will not have a significant impact upon the success or failure of your operation, you should try to delegate it.

* “Identify the right problems.” Try to make sure that you are dealing with the real cause of your problem.

* “Use a decision-making method that fits your problem. Don’t swat a fly with a sledge hammer.”

3. Understand and be familiar with tested method of decision making. Charles H. Kepner, social psychiatrist, and Benjamin B. Tregoe, sociologist, specializing in management training, have developed the following sequence of procedures.

* The objectives of a decision must be established first.

* The objectives are classified as to importance.

* Alternative actions are developed.

* The alternatives are evaluated against the established objectives.

* The choice of the alternatives best able to achieve all the objectives represents the tentative decision.

* The tentative decision is explored for future possible adverse consequences.

* The effects of the final decision are controlled by taking other actions to prevent possible adverse consequences from becoming problems, and by making sure the actions decided on are carried out.

4. Make minor decisions as soon as possible and relieve your mind and emotions of those decisions. This will provide you additional strength to make your major decisions. When possible make decisions now, for they can be reviewed later. The moment a decision comes to your attention, see yourself grabbing hold and struggling with it and finally disposing it. Golf pros say that you should envision the flight of the ball before you address the shot. Thus you learn to be the decider and not the procrastinator.

5. Every decision, if broken down into small, bite sizes, will be easier to make. This is a simplification of the overwhelming complexity of the massive computer. Bit-by-bit and bite-by-bite it accumulates information until it has enough of paper to spit out its findings.

6. “When pressed into a decision, it is always better to say no than yes. It is easier to change a no to a yes than vice versa.” This advice was given by a veteran vice-president of AT&T while serving on the church council. At the time, I thought it quite conservative. In the fifteen years that have passed, it has changed from conservative to wise.

Dr. Arthur B. Rutledge had a similar philosophy for timing in decision making. He often would counsel that it is better to wait for a yes answer, than to press for an immediate answer and get a no.

Charles Hole expressed it this way, “Deliberate with caution, but act with decisiveness; yield with graciousness, or oppose with firmness.”

7. The price of indecision is usually a heavy one. Hope put it eloquently. “Indecision is debilitating; it feeds upon itself. It is, one might say, habit-forming. Not only that, but it is contagious. It transmits itself to others. Often greater risk is involved in postponement than in making a wrong decision.”

John Foster expressed a similar feeling. “Nothing can be more destructive to vigor of action than protracted, anxious fluctuation, through resolutions adopted, rejected, resumed, suspended, and nothing causes a greater expense of feeling. A man without decision can never be said to belong to himself. He is as a wave of the sea, or a feather in the air which every breeze blows about as it listeth. ”

What these Englishmen are saying is that leaders had better make up their minds and get with it. When it is your time at bat, you have to go up and take your swings.

8. A group decision is usually a better decision. It is generally a safer one. The process takes longer because of group input and the emotions to be considered after a group member has authored an unacceptable idea. However, in decisions of far-reaching consequences, it is usually the better part of wisdom to get as many divergent ideas as possible before decision time. It is one thing for your associates to have the knowledge that you heard them, and still you did not choose their recommendation. It is another thing for them to feel they were not heard at all. Or, to paraphrase, it is better to have given input and lost, than to have never had input at all.

9. A word about zero-base budgeting (ZBB). Since decision making is the key to budgeting, it might be helpful to look briefly at the philosophy of the newest style. President Carter did not discover ZBB. (My wife says that we have been practicing ZBB since we were married. The only difference is that we seem to start one finish with zero.)

It is based upon the premise that nothing is set in concrete when you begin to plan next year’s budget. The use of the word zero is a bit misleading in the manner in which most corporations utilize the concept. In the sense that every line item for budgeting should be evaluated for inclusion or exclusion, zero is an appropriate term.

As the concept is practiced, the organization considers if the program is worth continuing at all. If not, it is discarded and budgeted zero. If it has worth, it is given consideration of how worthy when compared with every other recommendation for the new year. This puts every program in competition for a slice of the budget on a priority basis. This is a radical change from the way most religious organizations budget.