Decision Fatigue

The higher you move up in the organization, the more your job becomes about deciding than it does about doing.

The CEO doesn’t design a product, manufacture, sell or market a new product. The CEO DECIDES what to build, where to manufacture it, to whom to sell it, and how to market a product.

Junior employees universally under-appreciate how much decision fatigue executives face.

Making a bad decision is easy. Just make any choice randomly.

Living with the consequences of a bad decision for months and years is hard.

This is what senior executives worry about when making smart choices.

Did we look at all the relevant data?
Is there a scenario we failed to consider?
Did we get all the data?
Do we trust that the data is accurate?
What do we do?
When do we do it?
Who actually does it?
Why should we do it?

A single decision can prompt dozens of questions needing thoughtful answers.

One of the most useful habits I developed at McKinsey was to never go to a client, manager or boss with a problem.

I always went to them with a problem AND a proposed solution.


Because as a consultant I got to appreciate how much of a mental burden it is to make a good decision.

Anytime you bring a senior executive a problem without a proposed solution, you’re adding to her mental workload and burden.

A “good” employee brings a problem to the boss’s attention.

A great employees bring a problem AND a well researched, well thought out, proposed solution to the boss’s attention.

From the perspective of an executive, a meeting with a great employee goes like this:

  • Boss, we have a problem.
  • Here’s data on the magnitude and impact of the problem. Here’s what happens if we do nothing.
  • Here is what I propose we do about it.
  • Here’s why I think this is a good solution.
  • Here’s the data to support my recommendation.

The meeting ends with a very simple request from the great employee:

“Do I have your approval to make this problem go away as I proposed?”

Executives LOVE this kind of meeting.

1) They get awareness of some issue they didn’t fully understand before.

2) With just a single word (“Okay”), the problem will go away.

The takeaway is very simple:

Never go to your boss with a problem. Always go with a problem AND a proposed solution.

This is the simplest way to be invaluable.

From an executive’s point of view, there are two kinds of employees:

1) Those that add headaches to your to-do list;

2) Those that make headaches go away.

Which kind of employee are you?

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