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Navigating the Fog: Mastering Decision-Making in Uncertain Times

Tightrope walker crossing a chasm, picture from below looking up.
Picture Sean Benesh on Unsplash

A core principle of effective leadership is making decisions, and the more senior you get, the more you have to get used to making decisions based on incomplete and imperfect information.

Navigating decisions under such constraints isn't just a useful skill; it's an imperative. In today's fast-paced, intricate business landscape, waiting for every piece of the puzzle before making a move isn't just impractical—it's detrimental. The pitfalls of analysis paralysis are many: deferred decisions often resurface at the least opportune moments, forcing leaders into choices that are anything but optimal.

Given my line of work, it's hardly a revelation that I frequently coach clients on honing their decision-making prowess. Whether it's pushing them beyond their comfort zones to explore unconventional solutions or introducing structured frameworks to mitigate cognitive biases, the goal remains the same: better decisions. For decisions of lesser consequence and reversible - what we might call "Type 2" decisions—the focus is on forming habits that sidestep overthinking and procrastination. For more consequential and irreversible "Type 1" decisions, the emphasis shifts to processes that elevate decision quality.

One particularly potent tool for these high-stakes Type 1 decisions is the "pre-mortem." If you're familiar with a post-mortem—the forensic examination conducted to determine a cause of death—then consider the pre-mortem its proactive cousin. Originated by psychologist Gary Klein, this technique flips the script, moving the examination from post-event to pre-event.

I regularly employ pre-mortems with clients contemplating significant career shifts or organisational moves, as well as those launching new projects and strategic initiatives. The exercise consistently yields insights that not only mitigate risks but also substantially reduce the likelihood of failure in new ventures. So, the next time you're faced with a decision of consequence, remember: the best leaders don't just make decisions. They make them wisely.

🏋️ Challenge: Execute a Team Pre-Mortem for High Stakes Projects

Identify a pivotal project or decision on the horizon—be it a career-changing opportunity, a new business venture, a substantial investment, or a restructuring initiative. Before you set the wheels in motion, assemble your team for a pre-mortem session.

Present the following statement to your team. It is helpful with visualisation techniques like this one to be as vivid, specific and reflective as possible.

Assume it’s 12 months from now, and our project is a complete disaster. What went wrong?

Detail the fallout of this hypothetical disaster as concretely as possible—lost funding, layoffs, market share ceded to competitors, diminished profitability, squandered time and resources, and so on.

Next, instruct each team member to independently jot down every conceivable reason for the project's failure, emphasising factors they might usually hesitate to bring up.

Once people have stopped writing, invite each participant—including yourself—to share one reason from their list. Continue this round-robin until every potential pitfall has been aired and recorded.

After the session concludes, your role as the team leader is to scrutinise this collective intelligence. Your aim? To fortify your strategy by identifying actionable steps to mitigate these envisioned risks.

By confronting failure in a hypothetical space, you're not just preparing for adversity—you're preempting it. This exercise allows you to foresee potential stumbling blocks, thereby equipping you to sidestep them when the real work begins.


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