Decision-making tips

While serving as executive director of the Master’s Degree Program for Product Management at Carnegie Mellon University (the first Product Management Degree program), Greg Coticchia was faced with internal pressure from the school’s MBA program, which felt threatened by a new program with great promise. The overall consensus was that a one-year master’s degree would cannibalize the MBA program and add further challenges to recruiting promising applicants.

Coticchia decided that the best course of action was to meet with the administration and assure it of the differences between the applicants and the outcomes. The meeting, he had hoped, would ensure clarity as to the programs and their segments. Coticchia also decided to focus the marketing spend and messaging only to applicants who were truly interested in being a product manager when they graduated. Finally, Carnegie Mellon placed all of its students in firms that were not hiring for MBAs, so there was no conflict.

By recognizing the problem, taking action and openly communicating the program’s intentions every step of the way, Coticchia made sure he was addressing and minimizing concerns across the board. “The first variable in any decision-making process is, ‘Does it serve the overall organization?’ When making a major decision, you have to first think of what’s best for the business, or in this case, the organization. Second, you have to consider who is affected. People are the core of any business, and you must understand the people’s impact.”

“The first variable in any decision-making process is, ‘Does it serve the overall organization?’”

— Greg Coticchia, CEO, Sopheon

Today, as CEO of Sopheon, Coticchia helps steer an organization that provides complete innovation management software and services to help its customers achieve increased growth, mitigate new product risk, gain competitive advantage and improve profitability. The crux of his responsibility, as it was in his higher education days, is to make decisions mindful of the blind spots that sit hidden in the landscape.

“You have to know yourself,” Coticchia says. “If you don’t, you will always be at risk. It’s not about skills or experience in many cases, but good judgment. In many cases, an individual could have made a similar decision in a similar situation. Then, if the pattern matches when confronted again with the decision, they make the same one because maybe it turned out good the first time. That’s when you need to stop yourself. No situation is exactly the same. Don’t take shortcuts. Yes, you can apply what you did or learned, but think through what is different as well.”

In a higher education landscape fraught with a sea of continually moving barriers, when it comes to the decision-making process, getting input is good, and avoiding consensus is critical. The best path forward is to set the expectation that you want input and you are open to listening to all sides.

In fact, Coticchia says you must avoid scenarios like “Don’t just ask to ask” or “buy-in” only. You must commit yourself to be able to modify your decision to show you listened. If you cannot, don’t ask for input. But also, don’t look for consensus. “It’s not reality. Everyone won’t agree to everything 100 percent—and that’s OK.”

It all starts by being curious—having a beginner’s mind. Collect the facts and data, and see where they lead you. More than anything else, Coticchia says to remember that people all have a stake in their view of the world and how it benefits them, so your job is to get through those biases before you make a final decision. Finally, make sure you have the data and that it supports the rationale of the situation, i.e., don’t make data fit the rationale—be transparent.

Just the facts…

As Executive Director of the Atlanta University Center Consortium, Michael Hodge, Ph.D., says his areas of interest focus on racial and ethnic inequality, including health disparities and socioeconomic inequities. Over the years, his expert commentary and analysis has been the focal point of segments on “NBC Nightly News” and “CNN.”

So, when it comes to building the foundation for making the right decision, Dr. Hodge understands the variables that are most commonly considered when making major decisions. For higher education, the key indicators typically surround enrollment management, curriculum development and delivery (online versus in person), graduation rates, and media impacts and perceptions. Other risk indicators include market value, assets and financial considerations.

“Leadership needs to collect as much data as needed to assess the historical trends, current situation, direct and indirect consequences,” Dr. Hodge says. “Leadership also needs to understand not only the risk tolerance of the institution, but also keenly understand one’s own tolerance for risk. All data must be contextualized. What is your market? Understanding the constituencies of your institution is very important. There is a balancing act to avoid alienating any particular group with decisions. So the art of compromise is forefront when making them. Be prepared to go slower than you would like, but not so slow as to frustrate other constituencies.”

The other factor, and one Dr. Hodge says must always be taken into consideration, is that the decision-making process is not perfect. Inevitably, something will (and most likely) be missed. Recognizing that every possible outcome cannot be known is the first step in understanding how to be prepared for the unexpected.

“Unforeseeable outcomes are just that, unforeseeable,” he says. “However, being well versed in the process and bringing experience to the table helps to reduce being blindsided by the unexpected. Open and frequent communication is the stalwart of heading off the potential problems arising in any process. It also targets the need to bring great talent to the conversation. Allowing the free flow of ideas creates buy-in and reduces the likelihood of missing some critical component or step in the process.”

While Dr. Hodge says the decision oftentimes rests with leadership, it is essential to bring others into the process earlier rather than later. “People in higher education like to feel a sense of ownership in the process. Establishing a clear pathway for decision-making (and even getting buy-in of this pathway) will strengthen the outcomes, and maybe move the process more quickly.” In the end, a good decision incorporates all of the actions and factors that provide the best pathway for a positive outcome for everyone involved.

“Establishing a clear pathway for decision-making (and even getting buy-in of this pathway) will strengthen the outcomes, and maybe move the process more quickly.”

— Michael Hodge, Ph.D., Executive Director, Atlanta University Center Consortium