What You Can Learn from President Bartlet

If President Bartlet can make fast decisions, why can’t you? Confusing direction decision questions deciding on a clear strategy for solutions in business with a crossroads path to success choosing the right strategic plan with the challenge of a group of confusing traffic signs as a guide.

OK, I admit I am a tad late in discovering West Wing. That’s what comes of never watching TV. At some point television got pretty good and I wasn’t there to notice.

Now back to those West Wing decisions. In a matter of minutes, President Bartlet makes life and death decisions with imperfect information. One minute he is deciding if and how to rescue stranded drug agents and the next he’s reacting to a missile threat. All in a matter of minutes.

Meanwhile, your company is holding meeting after meeting after meeting. And you probably aren’t even saving lives. I bet most of those decisions aren’t even making a sizable impact on revenue, productivity, or employee commitment. As a matter of fact, all that time you spend meeting is proof positive that you are not improving productivity or increasing employee commitment. Employees hate meetings and when they are in meetings, they are not getting important work done. So how can you justify those slow decisions?

Fiction? Your telling me West Wing is fiction? So what? You are still spending too much time in meetings, involving too many people, and walking out with far too few decisions of significance.

What can you do about that? You can make better decisions faster by paying attention to three factors: importance, process, and roles.


Not every decision is created equal. Some decisions deserve deliberation, assuming you have the luxury of time and resources and no hostages waiting to be rescued. Others deserve little time even when you have nothing better to do. When is speed the top priority?

  1. Speed is the priority when a narrow window of opportunity demands an immediate decision. 

    Time is of the essence for opportunities that will evaporate and problems that will escalate if you are slow (e.g., sales and product safety revelations, respectively).
  2. Speed is the priority when the impact of the decision is small relative to the cost of deliberations. 

    Penny wise and pound foolish is alive and well in my client companies of all types. And I’m not just talking about money and the dollar value of time. Slow decisions eat up time that is irreplaceable. You can make another dollar; you can’t make another minute. If it takes you three months to decide to launch a new service, you will be three months slower to market.
  3. Speed is the priority when creating commitment and changing behaviors aren’t an issue. 

    If the number of people affected by a decision will be small or the nature of the change is inconsequential for those affected, there is no reason to involve everyone and her sister.
  4. Speed is the priority when the options are similar.  

    Sometimes decisions are hard simply because either the choices are alike or the outcomes associated with each choice are alike. If all your options are mediocre and you can’t come up with a better option or all your options are wonderful, flip a coin and move on. Talking about a mediocre option longer will not make it better.


Attention to process is the second opportunity to accelerate decisions.

People can help each other most easily when they share an understanding of the process, completed steps, and next steps. This holds true whether you are helping a youngster tie a shoe or helping your company prepare the annual budget. I call this shared process clarity.

Unfortunately, one of the most common and consequential processes people use is also the most abused: decision-making.

If your reaction to that statement is “Process?” my point is made. Every decision requires four basic steps. Unfortunately, most people muddle all steps into one messy, often prolonged, conversation. That’s like making the “bunny ear” loop before tying the “first part of a bow.” When it comes to decision-making, process clarity is extremely rare and shared process clarity is even less common.

The good news is that the decision-making process is pretty simple, universal, and rewarding! Once you have a shared understanding of the distinct steps of decision-making:

  • Decisions will be faster and better
  • There will be less stress and frustration
  • Employees at any level will be able to participate more easily
  • Commitment will increase
  • Whiners, dominators, and generally “difficult people” will become far less conspicuous
  • You will involve fewer people over all and more of the right people at the right time
  • Delegation will be easier for both managers and employees
  • You will save tremendous time

To create shared process clarity for decisions, you must SOAR through decisions! Follow the link to get the details!


Since most people conflate the four steps of decision making into one jumbled conversation, it rarely occurs to them that you need different people for different steps of a decision.

The person establishing the need for a decision does not necessarily know enough about the priorities of the organization to establish the criteria that should govern the decision. Those capable of establishing the criteria might not have the subject matter expertise required to identify alternatives. And those who identify alternatives may not be best positioned to assess and manage risks.

Technical decisions provide great examples. The CIO knows that the current IT system is not secure and so he puts the decision in motion with, “We need to decide how to deal with out security risks.”

The senior executives need to make the first cut at objectives. What kind of investment are they willing to make? Are they ready for an enterprise wide system or do they want a stop gap measure to plug the biggest security holes? Is this the time to address legacy issues as well?

Once the strategic decisions have been made, the executives are clearly in no position to develop alternatives to prevent hacking. That requires technical expertise.

Uncovering risks before finalizing a decision might include a number of players not yet involved: users, customers, suppliers with maintenance contracts, and those with knowledge of adjacent systems are just some examples. Will the system be safe but too slow or too tough for employees to use? Will the new solution work with legacy systems? How long will it take to implement and what other problems are likely to crop up in the interim?

If you want to make better decisions faster like President Bartlet, deliberately attend to each distinct step and be sure you have the right people and only the right people involved each step of the way. Don’t leave hostages in the lurch while you hold endless meetings and don’t ask Josh about military options or the Joint Chiefs of Staff to evaluate the President’s speech.

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