Category Archives: decision making

Choices, choices

question-pixabayAs we wrap up the year, we’ll be visiting the final leadership competency on the Minnesota state list – demonstrates effective decision-making.

To review all the competencies, you can click on the “leadership competencies” tab above our site banner.  In some ways, effective decision-making is a good summary of the list. It involves understanding self and others, integrity, relationship-building, effective management, and innovation. Some of the Minnesota State behaviors include:

  • Demonstrating critical thinking and asking appropriate questions
  • Seeking alternative viewpoints
  • Using appropriate decision-making methods
  • Involving stakeholders in decisions and communicating decisions to them

As you look at the year ahead, what key leadership decisions will you need to make? Stay tuned for ideas and resources to help you make them effectively!

Dee Anne Bonebright


Foolish or appropriate?

teeter-totterI rode my first teeter-totter last week on my mountain bike. To me it felt like a well thought out and reasonable action to take. I have been practicing my “skinny” skills and my bike handling has improved over the past year. I have watched my brother ride teeter-totters and he has shared with me information on technique so I felt well prepared. Was I afraid? Yes! Was it scary? Yes! Was it a risk? Yes! (Did I make it? Yes!)

We all assess and take different types of risk. Leaders are asked to take “appropriate” risks and then make decisions. Your success depends on your ability to accurately understand, assess, judge and take risks.

Dylan Evans, a researcher on risk and author of Risk Intelligence, believes that we can develop our skills in this area and actually build our “risk quotient.” The starting point for increasing our risk intelligence is the ability to accurately understand and accept what we do know and what we don’t know. Research has shown that most of us are bad at estimating probabilities based on what is actually know or not known. We end up either overconfident or excessively uncertain, both of which lead to poor risk assessment and decisions.

Leaders can use the following checklist that Evans developed to better understand and improve their risk intelligence.

  1. Do you consciously review what you know before making a decision?
  2. How does what you know actually relate to the decision?
  3. How likely is each piece of information to be true and how does that likelihood influence your decision?
  4. What else do you know that might actually relate to the decision?

Purposely and consciously asking these questions and using the results will increase your ability to assess risks and then make better decisions about an uncertain future.

Good luck on your next teeter-tooter of leadership!

Todd Thorsgaard


Seek out diverse perspectives

diverse perspectives 2Seeking out diverse perspectives can give leaders an important edge in today’s world. Whether embarking on a enterprise-wide initiative or making decisions that will impact a unit, institution, or community, diverse perspectives can give us the information we need to be more effective. They can keep us honest, keep us from moving into groupthink, and provide a resource to sharpen our thinking and lead to innovative solutions. As leaders, we can truly benefit from a diversity of perspectives!

So how can we as leaders seek out diverse perspectives? Here are a few ideas from the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota. They advise leaders to:

  • Encourage contributions from everyone and give voice to individuals and constituencies not in the room. Those in the room may need to represent stakeholders who are not present.
  • Acknowledge the impact of power and privilege on who speaks and who listens in groups. Be mindful of the status that is accorded to a person because of her or his position, race, ethnicity, economic class background, sexual orientation, gender, religion, ability/disability, education, expertise, and/or profession.
  • Practice respect for others. Listen deeply. Acknowledge and accept difference of opinions. Discern when to voice differences and when to hold them lightly.
  • Appreciate the constructive value of conflict. While conflict can feel hard or uncomfortable, helping a group move through conflict can result in better outcomes for everyone. Learn to tolerate and work through it, rather than smooth it over or ignore it.

Think of a group you lead that has some diversity. Consider who speaks in the group. Who has the most “air-time?” Is everyone heard? In your leadership role, how can you enable every participant to contribute fully?

Anita Rios

The never ending debate?

Best of 2015, first published on March 4, 2015
As the title suggests this dilemma cannot be vanquished but only revisited and managed – not solved!
–Todd Thorsgaard

disagreeEver since we could argue it seems as if people have been debating the merits of working for the common good or working for individual success and survival. Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher, wrote in 1651 that we needed government to enforce behaviors that support the common good. The economist Adam Smith argued in 1776 that we must establish a free economic market to ensure that the common good wins. Otherwise the power of individual success will win.

The Selfish GeneI first got involved in this debate as a behavioral biology student in 1976 when Richard Dawkins published one of my favorite books, The Selfish Gene. At the time it was described as “the most thrilling stretches of explanatory writing ever penned. It’s breathtaking.” Dawkins continued the scientific debate that is occurring today: is it better to act for the common good or is it better to act for the good of the individual?

While this debate has fueled many wonderful conversations and arguments on college campuses, during long car trips, or at the local bar it highlights a dilemma that all leaders face. Do I focus on the success of my team and our services or do I focus on the success of the larger organization, even if it hurts my team or my success?

What if there isn’t a “right” answer and instead it is actually a polarity that you can leverage? In her 2014 post, Leveraging polarities,  Anita introduced the concept of polarity thinking as a tool for leaders to use when facing these types of ongoing dilemmas. A recent article from the Polarity Partnership Group highlights the need to recognize the benefits of supporting the common good AND supporting your team while also acknowledging and acting on the downside of the common good AND the downside of team-focused success.

Over the next month we will be sharing tips and tools you can use to reap the benefits of focusing on the common good in your organization. Yet, in today’s complex environment we must also follow F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice and “hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It isn’t a debate between the common good and the good of your team, it is a polarity of the common good and the good of your team.

Todd Thorsgaard

Saying no with a greater yes in mind

Quotation-Steve-Jobs-say noIs it ever ok to say no to a good idea? As hard as it may be, the answer is yes.

Resources are limited. There are only 24 hours in a day, money doesn’t actually grow on trees, everyone has a life outside of work and, as we have talked about this month, leaders in higher education are facing shrinking financial support!

Despite knowing this reality many leaders have expressed how hard it is to say no, particularly to good ideas from their team. Making decisions and setting priorities leads them to “feel like the bad guy.” It is one of the toughest parts of being a leader.

A concept I learned long ago from Steven Covey and 7 Habits of Highly Effective People can help. Covey encourages leaders to identify the greater yes that is leading them to say no. Most times you are not saying that an idea is a bad idea but that energy and resources will add more value if you say yes to something else.

Taking the time to clearly describe what the “greater yes” is and how it will benefit students, stakeholders, or the team clarifies how you are setting priorities and making decisions. Focusing on what provides the most value and allowing yourself and your team members to say no, when there is a greater yes, can help keep work manageable and lead to higher performance.

What is your greater yes for your team or organization?



Combat exhaustion

exhaustion“Deep into a transformation, even if urgency remains high, even if people want to take on the big problems, and even if they succeed in generating waves of change, they can still fail because of exhaustion.” – John Kotter, The Heart of Change

Do you find yourself nodding in agreement with Kotter’s statement? I know I do. Transformational change often requires multi-year efforts from numerous employees and stakeholders in an organization. It requires new work that is typically added on top of all of the old work to keep an organization running. Continuing to pile on new work to existing work can lead to burnout for you and your people. So what can leaders do to reinforce the change and combat exhaustion for themselves and their teams?

Kotter says the answer is very simple: “When you have too much work, jettison some.”

It sounds simple, but in fact it can be tough to decide what no longer gets done in an organization. It can help if you and your team examine day-to-day activities and ask:

  1. Does this really add value?
  2. Is this task relevant?
  3. Do I (we) absolutely need to do this?
  4. What can be delegated?
  5. What can be done differently to streamline the task?

Kotter suggests that leaders aggressively rid themselves of work that wears you down and tasks that were relevant in the past, but are no longer useful. One task that I used to complete at the end of each year was a comprehensive, 30-plus page year-end report for distribution to all our stakeholders to demonstrate the value my unit brought to our organization. It was beautifully bound, in color, and took hours to compile. A couple of years ago, as we were going through multiple change efforts, my team and I determined that an extensive year-end report was no longer relevant. We skinnied it down to a 4-page, informal report that is shared with our stakeholders and nobody missed the long report.

As you continue to lead your change, what can you stop doing?

Anita Rios



“The challenge in my life really is keeping the balance between feeling creatively energized and fulfilled without feeling overwhelmed and like I’m in the middle of a battlefield.” – Amanda Palmer

Change efforts can feel overwhelming when you are in the middle of implementing them, especially as you are balancing new work activities with existing ones. As a leader, how can you keep the balance between being energized and overwhelmed as Amanda Palmer states?

One approach that is tried and true, is to examine each work activity through the lens of urgency and importance. Below is a classic work prioritization model developed by Stephen R. Covey that Todd Thorsgaard highlighted in his blog, “So many demands,” last year.








Prioritizing before responding to work demands can help you remain energized, without being overwhelmed.

What approaches have worked best for you when managing your existing work load and balancing new change efforts?

Anita Rios


Who’s on first?

abbott_and_costelloSad to say, many change initiatives start out with great ideas, energy and high engagement before they dissolve into confusion, frustration or apathy. In fact, I have been in change meetings that sounded like the classic bit by Abbott & Costello.

What I have discovered, as I am sure you have, is that bringing groups together from different divisions, functions and initiatives leads to conversations that are as fruitful as Abbott and Costello’s. Yet, the challenges we face in higher education, and most other fields these days, require collaboration and cross-initiative integration to find long-term success. When groups and individuals don’t understands each other, then no one knows who’s job it is to do what, who gets to decide and why, when we have decided, why we are even doing it, what we are actually doing, or just plain “who’s on first?”

As Scott Keller and Colin Price, from McKinsey & Company, describe in Beyond Performance, successful transformation requires clear structure and ownership. Helping your teams discuss and document accountability, decision-rights, and roles allows cross-functional teams to understand each other better and take action. A tool that can help provide that structure and ownership and develop the capacity for successful change is the RACI matrix.

For key tasks, actions, decisions and events that drive the change identify who is:

  • Responsible – makes recommendations, will be doing it, responsible for getting it done
  • Accountable – makes the decision, gives approval, has the authority
  • Consulted – subject-matter experts, crucial stakeholders with information needed before decision is made
  • Informed – stakeholders, groups, individuals who will be affected by the decision or need to be aware of the event

Consistent use of a tool like the RACI matrix will support the development of a powerful change engine that has the capacity to take action and drive success. HARMON KILLEBREWEveryone will know who is on first and why!

Todd Thorsgaard

Summertime and the living is easy……

Do you know the next line? If so leave a comment and also share what you are doing to enjoy your summer.

Similar to many of my favorite podcasts, I am offering a “best-of” summer repeat post today. First a quick set-up for you.

In Anita’s last post she highlighted the importance of Building a Change Engine to ensure you have the capacity for a successful change. Improving decision-making capabilities is a crucial aspect of the change engine structure.  The quality of decisions during all phases of change impacts the success of any change initiative.

At MnSCU we are focused on providing an opportunity for all Minnesotans to create a better future for themselves, for their families, and for their communities through our Charting the Future work. Leaders, faculty, staff, implementation team members, and stakeholders will all need to make many on-going decisions during the next few years. As in any organization working on transformational change, we will be searching for new ideas, exploring alternatives and examining current policies, procedures and processes and deciding what is the best mix for a successful future. Change demands making hard choices among many options.

Last December I wrote about a conversation McKinsey & Company had with Chip Heath that focused on how to increase the effectiveness of decision-making in organizations and individuals and make better decisions. Here is a link to that blog which includes some practical ideas for developing decision-making capacity in your organization – It’s a WRAP!

I hope you find this “repeat” blog valuable. In case you couldn’t answer my opening question, here is a hint. fish-graphics-catfish-931568

We would love to hear what you are doing to enjoy your summer.

Todd Thorsgaard

Who’s the decider?

pointing in different directionsChange is easy when everyone has the exact same vision and ideas. Ok, now that you have finished chuckling at the absurdity of that comment, let’s talk about reality. Scott Keller and Colin Price, consultants at McKinsey & Company and authors of Beyond Performancedescribe a common pitfall most organizations face during large change initiatives – “Apparent consensus fades when challenged.” Or, how I often hear it in my work, “that’s not what I thought we agreed to do.”

Who can make a decision and when a decision has been made are questions that need to be answered if an organization wants to successfully implement a change and keep it going. When the answers are murky or accountabilities are unclear confusion reigns and energy is sapped.

As George Bush so aptly highlighted in the title to my blog today, most of us want to be the decider or believe we should be the decider. This human tendency needs to be addressed by leaders during change efforts. In our Art of Supervision leadership program we identify six separate decision-making styles and work with leaders to highlight the importance of clearly identifying which style they are using and why. The same styles can be used by leaders of change and implementation teams. The six styles include:

  1. Executive decision – a single senior leader makes the decision on their own.
  2. Consultative decision – a single leader makes the decision after gathering input from others.
  3. Expert decision – decision-making accountability is designated to a subject-matter expert.
  4. Majority decision – the decision is made by the group based on a majority rules criteria.
  5. Participative decision – the decision is made by a subgroup that has been assigned the responsibility for the final decision.
  6. Consensus decision – the decision is made only after everyone involved agrees to the decision and commits to supporting it.

Each style has its advantages and disadvantages and there is no one right style of decision making, The important capacity for successful change is to purposely choose a style and clearly communicate which style is being used in which activities.


Don’t let this be the lasting image of your important change effort.

Todd Thorsgaard