Huge decision... only two choices. Both bad.

You are in charge. Everyone’s watching. And, the reality is, you would prefer to do nothing. So what should you do?

Forget politics for a moment if you can and become an observer. In this case, the problem is how to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The decision-maker is the President.

CBS News

CBS News

Just a couple of weeks ago, the President had two main choices — order military strikes or do nothing. Both options would bring down huge condemnation and both were ripe with unforeseen consequences. No way out. A decision has to be made. The solution must come from him.

The late journalist Daniel Schorr once said, “Most problems began... as solutions.” As Americans, we know the truth of that statement all too well.

Now let’s compare this Syria decision to choices you sometimes face. Approve this big project or purchase. Hire this new person. Go in this direction. Merge with this company.

Most big decisions all of us face as leaders are a mix of hope, limited information, and a great deal of uncertainty — particularly if you are the one who will bear the consequences if things go terribly wrong. Imagine multiplying the possible repercussions by having your every move made in public and having millions of critics and enemies awaiting your decision.

But what can you do when you have few choices and they are all bad?

There may seem no reasonable way out. But maybe there is…

You create more choices. I call it expanding your strategic options.

Here’s what you do. First figure out what you need most. Right now. More time? More information? A Plan B that refocuses attention (some would use the term distract)? Maybe you need justification — like a new piece of information that supports your decision. More allies. Or perhaps some third-party affirmation (like a UN Security Council resolution).

So if you were faced with this decision, what would you most want to happen right away? How about these three:

    1)  Buy additional time (nearly always the first step in critical situations we work on);

    2)  Get others involved (to share responsibility and if necessary, blame);

    3)  Create better outcomes (including both what you want and don’t want to happen).

In fact, all three of these options happened (or were made to happen) this past week regarding the Syrian mess. Here are some of the strategic moves I’ve observed — and which came from several different parties:

The Secretary of State mentioned that perhaps the international community should take charge of Syria’s chemical weapons. Aha, a whole new option thrown out there. Who takes the bait but Russia, Syria’s ally. Putin starts proposing just such a move (forget motive for the moment here). The UN jumps in and France gets on board.

Immediate outcomes?… Time bought (#1 done). Others now involved (#2 done). Better possible future outcomes created (#3).

Problem solved? Hardly. This is a problem that will not go away anytime soon. And lots of competing agendas are at work. But perhaps some progress. Perhaps.

So what’s the point… the lesson for us as leaders?
Here’s what I believe it is: The next time you are facing a decision with only a few bad choices — immediately work on creating more choices or strategic options that could help you move from having a huge problem… to actually making some progress.

We’ve done it… and you can too.


Carl Francis
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