Decisions vs. Actions – what is the difference?

If you have read previous posts, you know I have been thinking about how decisions get made and observing my environment to discern patterns. One of the things I learned is that while I spend a lot of time in meetings, and while I am ostensibly in a decision-making role, I have noticed that I don’t actually make that many decisions – at least not obviously. So that started me thinking: what does a decision actually look like, in its “natural environment” of an organizational setting? What behaviors are associated with it? How do you know when one has been made?

I am being a bit facetious, but not completely.   It is not completely clear to me that people actually “make” decisions, at least not to the extent that we think we do. It might be more accurate to say that we notice when a decision seems to have been made, either by ourselves or by others. When I had to decide whether to leave my last organization to come to my current one, I spent a lot of time thinking about the choices in front of me, weighing them, considering them. I kept trying to make a decision. But in my experience, I did not actually make up my mind. Instead, I got down to one thing: if I said “no” to the new opportunity, I realized that I would regret it for the rest of my life.   Did I make that decision, or did I just notice when it had been made?

For most of our day to day decisions, there is ample evidence that we don’t even weigh options.   More than anything, we seem to operate from habit. We don’t decide to eat the cookie, or to exercise, or check our email – we have moments of consciousness, interspersed with unconscious action (see Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit for a fantastic book on how this happens and why, and how you can change your habits). Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist, explores how we act first and then rationalize our actions later (see Predictably Irrational).

I think that it might be true that a decision is just a thought, and may not actually exist – and that it is really action, observable behavior, that is the only way to know if a decision took place. Both for individuals and for organizations, perhaps the only thing that matters is what actions emerge. So if we want to change our behavior, to become more data-informed in our decision making (such as it is), then the first step may be to become more aware of our behavior in the first place. To understand the current state, of either self or organization. Data-informed action may lead to better outcomes, but habit will trump it every time unless we become more mindful. As Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Organizational culture may just simply be the habitual behaviors, processes and mental models at play. An organization cannot become data-informed without a change in its culture, much as an individual cannot change her behavior without a change in her habits.

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