December 17, 2012

The Most Important Rule for Making Decisions


In a recent NPR interview about a budget deal, former senator Bill Bradley reminded us of the most important rule for debate and decision-making: you have to agree on the principles which the ultimate decision should reflect.

Without agreement on principles, you just debate your respective positions.
Without a shared vision and strategy, you just argue about tactics.

All too often individuals in staff meetings or discussions on a volunteer committee or board spend needless attention and energy trying to reach a decision because they lack a shared understanding of (and commitment to) common principles that the decision must reflect. So instead of thinking and working together, they merely report out their respective positions and debate the merits of them.

Think of it in terms of an outline for a term paper: you decide on the major points associated with the Roman numerals in your outline before you begin evaluating what goes with the lower case a and b.

The more important or difficult the decision, the more we must invest upfront in developing a shared set of principles or criteria that can inform the final decision and that our ultimate choice should reflect.

When disagreement over the specifics starts to surface, we can always drop back to where we last had significant agreement to restart the negotiations or deliberations instead of growing increasingly divided by (and entrenched in defending) the specifics of our differences. 

Getting agreement on principles won't necessarily be easy, but without that shared understanding you'll frequently find it near impossible to get agreement on the specifics.

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