The Best Possible Decision


A team of professionals has gathered to help Save the Dogs decide which payroll firm to hire.

Maria has suggested Firm A – she has had great experience working with them.

On the other hand, Suzanne speaks from her years of experience as an accountant who works with payroll firms, “Keep working with the firm you’re using – just find a person in that firm who is more responsive to your needs.”

And George suggests, “There is a new online system that makes the work brainless and is very cost-effective.”

The group discusses the merits of each option, each person advocating for his/her position based on his/her experience. As the conversation leans in the direction of Firm D, Maria checks out, as she really wanted the group to hire Firm A. George begins to get angry, as his online system doesn’t even seem to be in the running.

The decision is made. It’s a seemingly mundane topic, yet several participants are audibly grumbling when they leave the meeting, one of them openly saying, “They never listen to me. I don’t know why I even bother.”

Decision-making is a process of juggling priorities and desires and potential and hazards. There are decisions that feel right, and there are those that feel wrong from the moment we make them. There are decisions that bring groups together, and there are decisions that tear them apart.

So how does one know what to base our decisions on? How can we know which choices are the best? 

Decision-Making as a Positive and Productive Experience
Decision-making discussions are always going on at two different levels. There are the simple objective criteria against which the decision will hopefully be weighed.

Then there are the fears and concerns and allegiances and emotions of the people making the decision.

So how can we turn decision-making into a time for learning and exploring and building community with the other people in the room? How can we find ways to honor everyone’s input and wisdom?

Using a Decision-Making Matrix
For just about every major decision at Creating the Future, we use a decision-making matrix. Over the years, we have found the discussion that arises through the matrixing process allows everyone to get their concerns and ideas and inspirations out on the table, so that we not only make the best decisions, but we learn about each other in the process.

A matrix is nothing more than a grid, with the decision choices down one side, and objective decision-making criteria across the other. Each option is then measured against each issue on a scale of 1-3 (3 = best / 1 = worst). When the whole grid is filled in, we add up the numbers and the highest one wins!

The most important aspect of the discussion, then, is to list as many objective criteria as the group can think of. In that way, we not only ensure we are including as many decision-making points as possible; we are also ensuring that everyone’s concerns and reasons are heard and honored.

Example: Choosing a Payroll Processing Firm
About a month ago, we posted that we were looking to change payroll processing firms. At that post, we asked what criteria we should be considering as we made the decision, and those responses helped add to our matrix. Here are the criteria we wound up considering:

  • Will they handle all the withholding and deposits, all the quarterly reports and payments to all entities (e.g. some only pay the Feds, where we would have to pay the State)
  • Will they do a direct deposit?
  • Proof of liability protection (bonded, insured, etc.)
  • Does their system integrate with Quickbooks?
  • Are they local?
  • Do they seem responsive? (If they’re not responsive when they’re courting our business, that’s a clue as to how they will treat us once we are a customer!)
  • Do they have experience?
  • Cost
  • Testimonials? Are they a known quantity?
  • Flexibility – will they charge for changes such as change of payroll dates? (This is important in a start-up, where payroll happens when there is money!)
  • Hassle factor – ease of making changes vs. it’s a fixed program

We had narrowed the decision down to 4 different options, ranging from Intuit’s simple online payroll system to staying with our prior payroll firm. Adding up the rankings for the issues above, the totals ranged from 18 to 29, with the clear winner being a locally owned firm that has been serving Tucson clients for over 20 years.

The Elephant in the Room
But here’s the thing. It wasn’t only the ranking that helped us decide. Because sometimes the discussion surrounding the matrix makes clear that there is one issue that is more important than all the rest. In this particular case, it wasn’t anything overt, but something that nagged at me like a gremlin scratching to get out of my gut.

The fear that I would mess up.

Creating the Future is in start-up mode. A year from now, we will have a dozen staff, including someone who is responsible for making sure nothing regulatory falls through the cracks. But for now, as co-founders, Dimitri and I are doing everything. And while “everything” includes teaching classes, writing blog posts and speaking to groups all around the world, it also includes things like paying the bills and making sure the tax exemption application is moving along.

And we confess that sometimes things fall through the cracks. If the bills don’t get paid, usually it is not because we lack funds, but simply because one of us forgot to do it.

Because of that, my gut said, “We need a firm that will handle everything, so there is less for us to forget. And we need a firm that will be responsive when we do forget. AND we need a firm that will be proactive to remind us of stuff we need to do, to be sure it gets done.”

Without a matrix, though, the discussion could have ended in a million different ways that would not have given me the opportunity to articulate that. And because the issue had to do with my own fears of messing up, I probably would not have been pleasant during the discussion, because when we are in fear, we are rarely pleasant!

Picture this scenario:

Key players in an organization gather to make a major decision. The group decides to move forward with Plan A. Then, 2 weeks later, the ED quietly moves forward with Plan C, despite the group’s discussion.

Without articulating the objective issues that are affecting the people in the room, these sorts of scenarios are cause for massive hair-tearing. And so, as it did in our case, using a matrix ensures not only that we include critical decision-making criteria – it also ensures we are honoring the wisdom of the people in the room, by asking them to identify which criteria may be causing discomfort.

It’s Not the Matrix; It’s the Discussion
What has hopefully become clear is that yes, a matrix can be a very handy tool for making decisions. But the most important part of the decision-making process is not the tool; it’s the process. Making decisions is as much about the people in the room as it is about the decision itself. Using a matrix as a tool not only for decision-making but as a tool for objectively facilitating an otherwise difficult discussion – that is where the real value lies.

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