Reflective Learning and Decision Making

By Dawna Jones

There are several ways to see whether the decisions you’re making will ultimately lead to the results you’d hoped for. Fortunately, you don’t necessarily have to crash and burn first (though crashing and burning tends to get some entrepreneurs’ attention for the first time). Instead, you can step back and reflect, learning from the past in order to make better decisions in the future.

Identifying blind spots in the decision-making process

Unknown information and blind spots in the decision-making process can thwart the most skilled decision-maker. Blind spots are those instances in your decision-making where you can’t see the underlying assumptions, beliefs, or routine patterns that are impacting the situation and that will divert direction to results you don’t want instead of results you do. You can reveal blind spots by answering questions like the following:

  • “Are the results that we are seeing the results that we were aiming for?”

  • “Are customers paying on time?”

  • “Are suppliers delivering what they promised when they said they would?”

  • “Does our business attract loyal and repeat customers?”

Each question has a simple “yes” or “no” answer that quickly shows you which areas need further exploration. The “no” answers reveal gaps between what you were originally aiming for and the results you’re getting; they let you know that it’s time to step back to examine why a difference exists. “Yes” answers indicate you’re good to go forward. Keep in mind, however, that you must remain mindful to the risk of complacency.

When asked at periodic intervals, questions like these can help you to stay alert. You can also use questions to reflect on decisions that resulted in a setback. Doing so helps you see ways to improve decision-making in the future.

Learning from decision errors and disasters

To learn from what’s already happened, step back to check. The following steps guide you (you can also use these steps to verify that everything is on course):

  1. Verify the original aim of the decision.

    Identifying the original aim clarifies whether it and the desired results were clear from the start.

    You live in a design-while-building-the-solutions world, and not everything will be totally clear from the beginning. If you’re using these steps to determine whether a project or decision is on course, check whether the original goal is becoming more or less clear as it emerges during implementation.

  2. Observe the result and how well it aligns with the original goal.

    Through careful observation, you can see how the results align with the original goal. In the case of evaluating a decision in progress, observe the results you are seeing at this point to see whether they’re heading in the right direction and are consistent with the original aim.

  3. If the results are at odds with the original aim, review the information, actions, and so on that were made at each stage of the decision-making process to discover where you made assumptions that led the results astray.

    Consider the following: the information your team relied on, the course of action you selected, how the decision was communicated and implemented, and how the implementation was monitored.

Breaking down the process in this way helps reveal where assumptions were made. You can see where information wasn’t accessible and available to decision-makers in real-time; where actions were out of sync with the expectations of clients, customers, and/or other important stakeholders; where important factors were overlooked in the implementation of the decision; where communication broke down and risk was discounted; and where implementation failed to be monitored.

After you gain insight on why prior decisions didn’t go according to plan, you need to apply that insight to future decisions. Consider what you can take away from these less-than-optimal experiences the next time you need to make a decision. You can also apply the lessons learned to make adjustments now to the processes you use to make similar decisions.