5 “Never Miss” Steps for Making Tough Decisions

Marisa Smith Culture, Leadership, Values

Marisa Smith

Editor’s Note:  At the Center, we support and celebrate executives who are leading values-driven organizations. We also like to hear from these executives, as we believe their stories and experiences can help shape the global conversation around responsible business.

Earlier this month we launched a new series on our blog, called the Executive Panel. We’ll ask the same question to different executives, and let them share – in their own words – their most useful strategies,  frameworks, and lessons-learned.

This week, our panelist is Marisa Smith, CEO of the Whole Brain Group. 


How do you make tough decisions?

When the Center for Values-Driven Leadership asked me to pen a guest blog on how I make big decisions, I knew I had plenty to say on the subject. Recently, my marketing agency, the Whole Brain Group, made a big decision of our own: to move to a larger office. A change of this magnitude carries great growth potential—but it’s also a big shake-up for our team as well as a financial gamble. No doubt, it was one of the most high-impact decisions I’ve faced as company president.

We’re slated to move in April, so we don’t yet know how our decision will work out. But I’m feeling confident about it because of all I’ve learned about good decision-making over the years. While my experience has netted me countless valuable lessons, I’ve tried to boil them down to a handful of important maxims to share here with you.

1. Define Your Core Vision and Values

This is my most essential piece of decision-making advice. If you have articulated your vision and values, then you have a solid framework against which to pose a simple question: “Does this decision work in support of our vision and values, or does it carry us farther away from them?” At the Whole Brain Group, our vision and values are built around one main goal: great customer service. If decision A will bring us closer to that goal than decision B, that’s instant clarity.

2. Learn to Collaborate

Don’t make decisions in a bubble. When I founded my agency, in 2002, I tended to take on all the responsibility for big decisions. I felt that since it was my company, it was up to me to make it succeed through my own blood, sweat, and tears.

What I eventually realized was that by being so self-reliant, I was essentially acting as a roadblock to the good ideas coming from the smart staff whom I had hired. When I finally learned to empower them with a voice in decision-making, far from muddying the waters, the combination of their collective knowledge and diverse viewpoints shed unexpected light on problems I had struggled to overcome on my own.

Learning to collaborate smartly on decision-making has been key to my company’s success; it has also developed shared accountability, making my team feel more bonded and more responsible for the company’s collective welfare.

3. Structure Your Decision-Making Time

While collaboration with staff is important, at times it can start to feel like too many cooks are in the kitchen. At the Whole Brain Group, we’ve found that structure is the key to solving this problem.

We set quarterly all-staff meetings at which everyone gets to air their problems and challenges. We often find that after discussing them a while, many issues have gotten solved along the way. Those that remain may then be prioritized, and approached systematically and thoughtfully because we’re not so overwhelmed anymore.

We also use the concept of a “parking lot” for problems. If you have one central place where you record all your challenges (a shared document, a white board), it allows you to see what is truly urgent versus what can sit in that parking lot until you have time to revisit it and deal with it thoughtfully. Sometimes, problems get solved as by-products of other decisions and can be removed from the parking lot; other times, they need to be approached on their own.

4. Use Your Resources

Achieving structure is much easier when your team is all working from the same page—literally. At the Whole Brain Group, we love the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) laid out by Gino Wickman in his book, Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business. We’ve followed his processes and refined them over the years for our own business. One tool that has resulted from this evolution is a standard meeting agenda that facilitates collaborative, smart decision-making.

There are lots of helpful resources and templates out there to aid your decision-making. Talk to colleagues and browse the web to find the one that’s best for you.

5. Make Time & Take Time

Last but certainly not least, make the time to do the work involved in the steps above. Yes, time is at a premium for all of us, and the tendency is to give our attention to the work we do for our clients—but it’s important to balance that with time spent building your company’s internal structure so that you have a strong framework to help you with decision-making.

By the same token, take the time you need to think things through—“sleep on it” is still some of the best advice around. Sometimes big decisions simply need space! We often find that allowing things to rest in our parking lot a while causes solutions to present themselves. This was the case in our decision to move to a new office: the right answer crystallized over time, as we saw that a cramped space was increasingly acting as an impediment to our core vision of customer service.

As we continue on our growth trajectory, sound decision-making practices like these will continue to be foundational to the Whole Brain Group’s success.

Read More >> Rigorous Thought for Making Tough Calls: How I Do It, by Tom Carmazzi, CEO of Tuthill Corporation


Marisa Smith is Founder and CEO of The Whole Brain Group, an Ann Arbor, Michigan based web development company that specializes in inbound marketing solutions for business, education and non-profit organizations. Find more insights from Marisa and her team on their blog.

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