Decisions of varying degrees of complexity confront humans multiple times every single day. They range from the relatively routine and mundane, like which breakfast cereal to select from the supermarket aisle, to how much time we should allocate to completing a project (a bit more complicated than choosing corn flakes), or selecting what your next move in a game of chess might be.
In the latter, a player must not only ‘read’ (assess) a multitude of indicators comprising the current state of the board and work out the options for advance or damage limitation, but also the level of skill of the opponent and how he or she is likely to respond. An element of intelligently competitive gambling, a more or less ‘probable scenario’ calculus, is unavoidable here.
Already, we are getting into much more intricate forms of decision making. But an even more complex process of choosing exists than the three types mentioned above.
The Harvard Business Review once described this as ‘fourth field’ decision making (to distinguish it from the previous three). That is, decisions that do not merely result in one simple outcome as opposed to another, but to a complex cascade of results emerging from a multiplicity of variables that between them determine whether a business will outperform is rivals in a critical, complex market challenge.
The author of the HBR piece, strategy and international business professor Phil Rosenzweig, observes that these immensely complex strategic decisions rest upon a bedrock self-assurance and prior decisions — decisions concerning how adroitly an executive leads and communicates, inspires and encourages. Other people need to be on board with a complex strategy, after all, or it will likely fail.
It is to this level of strategic decision making that we will now turn, including how aspiring business leaders can learn to acquire and master the requisite arts in an era awash with oceans of digital data.
So, just what is strategic decision making?
Digital business technology has not only simplified much of human endeavor (few people send critical information through the conventional mail these days, for example) but it has also generated stupendous mountain ranges of digital data. How can big decisions be made amid these veritable avalanches of information? How can mere humans sort through them and find something intelligible to rest a major decision upon?
To see the big picture, some aptitude in sorting through big data seems essential. And CEOs certainly need the big picture before they act, because ‘acting’ in the best interests of a complex organisation for such a senior executive involves pulling multiple strings at once (to the right degree and in concert), from accounting, to finance, to marketing, to operations, to HR department— and more.
A ‘strategy’ in business perhaps needs to be distinguished from a ‘vision’ or a ‘mission’, which may be best thought of as aspirational ideal states. A vision — to become, say, a world leader in a specific market — can often be a fine thing but it does not alone get things done.
This is not to disparage visions and missions but to situate them in their proper place — as overarching guides to a strategic decision-making process that will take the requisite steps to make them real. In fact, the vision/ideal can be used as a lodestar to evaluate how well (or in need of adjustment) the strategic steps are performing in bringing it into being.
A strategy, by contrast, comes right down to earth (without losing sight of that lodestar) and considers a multitude of commercial realities, sometimes at a quite ‘granular’ level, by assessing assorted tradeoffs and defining the specific long-term, medium-term and short-term actions that must be executed to bring the desired outcome to fruition. In other words, strategic decision makers need to have clear (and measurable) standards of where they want the organisation to be one month, six months, one year and five years from the starting point.
Strategy involves diagnostics. Strategic decisions must begin with a clear definition of the problem, and then progress to a guiding policy for how to solve it. But then, that policy must be ‘filled in’ with specific actions designed to take the company to where it needs to be for the problem to be solved.
But how does one know what the specificities of these actions consist of? Essentially, since we are moving from the abstraction of a superordinate goal to the individual and collective steps needed to realize it over the short, medium and longer term, each step (like the original problem) needs to be analyzed from a range of perspectives. This, in turn, entails drawing on relevant and accurate data (bad decisions are usually decisions made on too limited a pool of information).
How to become a strategic decision maker?
Anyone reading the foregoing who recognizes their own aptitudes and interests in the paragraphs might be asking this question. And although there are variety of academic qualifications that prepare capable future business leaders for executive careers, perhaps the most comprehensive and widely respected is the Master of Business Administration, or MBA.
Thankfully, while it is an advanced degree, it is now available to many who are not in a position to sacrifice existing employment and/or family obligations to study full time on a university campus. Well-established and estimable seats of higher education, like the UK’s Aston University, now offer top-tier business programs to ‘distance learners’. Aston’s online MBA, which can be completed within two years, is one such program, offering students a full MBA which can be studied from their own homes around work and family commitments, not in place of them.
Few things say ‘strategic decision maker’ like a Master of Business Administration degree, not least because courses of this caliber rigorously prepare their students with all the tools and knowledge to claim legitimate ownership of such an epithet. Every student will be carefully walked through all the knowledge bases to make an exceptional future business leader.
It may be challenging and require a good deal of hard work and self-discipline — most achievements worth gaining tend to be like that, of course — but the doors to a career in business leadership that this credential can unlock are excitingly alluring.