08/11/2014 12:38 EDT | Updated 10/11/2014 05:59 EDT

In Decision-Making, Timing Is Everything

John Rensten via Getty Images


"I'm the decider, and I decide what's best," George W. Bush rather famously said back in 2006 in response to pressure from critics to drop Rumsfeld from his team. This phrase drew the ire of the media and landed him the title of "Decider-in-Chief", a title that persists in our collective conscious.

George W. may not have been eloquent, but he had a point. Whether he meant to or not, Bush was drawing attention to decision-making as one of the fundamental responsibilities of leadership. The more time I spend in a leadership role, the more acutely aware I become of how often decision-making moments arise. A hiring decision, a strategic play, or, one of the toughest decisions for any business: when to say no to revenue-generating opportunities.

Earlier this month Procter & Gamble screamed a resounding 'no' when they announced they would discontinue 90-100 brands over the next two years to instead focus on major revenue generators like Tide and Pampers. Interestingly, this decision was reported by the Wall Street Journal as a "personal turnabout" for CEO A.G. Lafley, who spent a previous nine years expanding the brand portfolio on the premise that more choice drives consumer activity. Why such a change in the direction of the company?

This story highlights the seemingly arbitrary nature of decision-making. A strategy that works in some cases doesn't work in others. There are so many variables such as the competitive landscape, the overall health of the economy and new technologies that impact the outcomes of each business decision that it can sometimes feel as if leaders are simply playing the lottery. That Mr. Lafley is literally putting the 'Gamble' in, well, you know.

What I call the lottery, neuroscientists call uncertainty. One of the most fascinating theories in the growing field of 'decision neuroscience,' the somatic marker hypothesis, states that emotions play a major role in decision-making. In ambiguous situations with uncertain outcomes -- i.e. your typical business environment -- cognitive processes (rational thought) become overloaded, making emotional processes even more critical. If this is true then Mr. Lafley's "personal turnabout" was truly personal, a unique outcome of his complex internal cognitive and emotional dialogue.

Perhaps the ability to make an effective decision for the future is less important than the ability to know when a decision has to be made. A mentor of mine once told me that inaction is itself a form of decision; whether we realize it or not, it's a decision to maintain the status quo. The leadership at Procter & Gamble recognized their previous strategy was no longer working. The question remains whether or not they were (and will continue to be) able to act quickly enough. And when will they know if this new strategy is the right one or if once again it's time to readjust? Part of the appeal of the lottery is finding out quickly whether you win or lose. But in business the results are rarely so obvious, and always subject to change.