When a Fortune Cookie isn’t Enough: Three Models for Making Tough Decisions

When a Fortune Cookie isn’t Enough: Three Models for Making Tough Decisions

An hour after I got home from a month-long business trip to China last fall, I was hungry again – hungry to go back. Last year, I hankered for the excitement of living alone abroad, for the challenge of communicating in a new language, and for the autonomy of having nobody else’s opinion to consider in making my decisions. (Of course, it’s cold comfort to have complete control of the remote when there’s nothing on television in English).

Like vegetable dumplings, I had my fill of all of those things. What I was hungry for this time was seeing, feeling and doing it all again through the eyes of my husband and ten-year-old twins, Jacob and Sophie. When I rode a toboggan down the side of the Great Wall of China, I thought, “Sophie would love this!” When I saw the street vendors selling fried grasshoppers (which are considered kosher birds), I thought, “Jacob would eat this!” And when I walked around the glorious lake in the middle of Peking University, I thought, “Michael would take this stroll with me.”

And so, an hour after I landed back in New York in the fall of 2010, I began to wonder how I might set this plan into motion for the fall of 2011. Could my craving to return – with my family – be satisfied without deleterious ramifications?

How does one make such a decision? As a professional coach, I felt compelled to experiment with a minimum of three decision-making models for this challenge.

Model 1: The Vroom-Yetton-Jago Model.

When you have a decision to make, there are three critical factors to consider as to whether you make the decision on your own or get others’ input:

  • Decision Quality. How vital is it that the decision be “right”? Does the decision need to be a good enough one, or the perfect one? If the decision needs to be simply good enough, you may be able to make it on your own. If the decision needs to be great, or even perfect, you need to involve other people in the decision. There wasn’t a perfect, flawless, high-stakes decision to be made about taking my family away with me, so I could, in theory, decide alone. Except, I also have to consider…
  • Team Commitment. How important is it that the team buy into this decision? When you need members of your staff, board or family to feel committed and involved, and to embrace the decision, they should be a part of making the decision if possible. I pictured pulling two sullen pre-teens around Tiananman Square while my husband sulked at the Mao Zedong Mausoleum, and thought, yes, I definitely need team buy-in for this decision.
  • Time Constraints. How much time will you have to make this decision? I knew I had at least six months to decide, and the model says that the more time you have, the more you can include others. I figured that six months would give me enough time to mention at least once, if not twice, that I was thinking about bringing everyone with me.

Model 2: The 10-10-10 Model.

In her book, "10-10-10," author Suzy Welch recommends that, when faced with a complex dilemma, stop and ask, "What will the consequences of my options be in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years?" 10-10-10 is a place-holder for short-term, medium-term and long term effects. The first stage of the process is asking the question to which you need an answer, the second stage is gathering data about your options, and the third stage is analyzing the information to ask, "Knowing what I now know, which decision will best help me create the life I want?"

I recognized that no matter which way my decision (I mean, our decision) went, there wasn’t likely to be horrendous consequences. But even without life-or-death ramifications, I knew that there were difficulties to contend with. Did we know what they were? Did we want them? Were they worth it? So I ran the decision through the 10-10-10 model. Here’s a condensed version:

Decision: Should we take the children out of school for two weeks to go to China?

Short Term Pro: Awesome surprise for the kids, something fun and educational to plan together.

Short Term Con: Lots of shots, 13 hour flight.

Medium Term Pro: The kids get steeped in a new culture, try new foods, bond as a family.

Medium Term Con: Have to make up all the school work plus do a special project, the absence from school could put them behind for a while.

Long Term Pro: Priceless, life changing experience.

Long Term Con: The null set.

So, where did my 10-10-10 take me? As a numbers game, the Short and Medium Term pros and cons canceled each other out. The Long Term Pro, however, sounded an awful lot like a MasterCard commercial, while the Long Term Con was silent. Yes, the math was pushing us towards a “yes” decision, but I don’t believe that the numbers provide the complete picture. Decisions are made both rationally and emotionally, and I needed a third model to help me play that out.

Model 3: Head, Heart, Gut.

I was going old-school here, as the “HHG” model was the very first one that I learned when I went to coaching school many years ago. At its core, the HHG model asks us to inquire into what the wisdom of our thinking, feelings and instincts tell us. Many of us rely primarily on one of the three (I tend to be a Head), but we need to cultivate the ability to listen to the other two when we have a big decision to make.

And here’s where I got lucky. When I asked my head, my heart and my gut the question, “Should we take the children out of school for two weeks to go to China?” all three of them shouted at me, loud and clear:


So, you have one guess where my kids will be celebrating Thanksgiving this year. And one more guess as to what we will all be thankful for.

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