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Education competencies: Timely decision making

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success. View all competencies.


Makes decisions in a timely manner, sometimes with incomplete information and under tight deadlines and pressure; thinks well on his or her feet.

Proficiency level

Level 1: Basic Level 2: Intermediate Level 3: Advanced Level 4: Expert
Makes timely decisions, given the necessary information Makes decisions in a timely manner, even with incomplete information Makes good decisions quickly, with or without complete information and under tight deadlines and pressure Quickly sizes up multiple situations and complex problems and makes excellent, timely decisions
Can make quick decisions when the situation merits Will make a quick decision when required Thinks well on his or her feet Thinks clearly and strategically under pressure

Overdoing timely decision making

  • May jump to conclusions and take action before reasonable consideration of the information
  • May get caught up in decision making for its own sake
  • May have a chilling effect on getting everyone's input before deciding
  • Might be considered impulsive and impatient
  • Might have some trouble with and freeze on issues and problems that are close calls
  • May make decisions quickly to avoid debate and personal discomfort

Essential questions

To improve your proficiency, ask yourself the following questions on a regular basis:
  • What decisions have I delayed making because I would be more comfortable with additional data?
  • Is there an issue that I've examined to death which I must make a decision on now?
  • Have I missed any deadlines for making decisions or rushed a decision because I am disorganized?
  • Are there any difficult or big decisions that I can break down into smaller issues and deal with piece by piece?
  • Am I hesitating to disclose a difficult decision that I made for fear of the repercussions?
  • What is the worst-case scenario as a result of my decision, and what can I do to compensate or prepare for it?
To avoid overdoing timely decision making, ask yourself:
  • Am I rushing to make decisions to get them out of the way and without proper consideration of the information?
  • Am I making decisions too quickly to avoid debate or contention with others?
  • Am I making decisions too quickly without taking time to get information or input from others?

Interview questions

  • Share an example of when you had to make one or more timely decisions, but information on which to base your decision was difficult to obtain. How did you determine how much information was enough? What decisions did you make and what were the results?
  • Describe a time when you had to make a quick decision or think on your feet. What was the situation and why was speed so important? What was your decision? How effective was your decision and what was the result?

Learning on the job

Learning on your own: These self-development remedies will help you build your skill(s).
  • Overcome the need for perfection: Try to decrease the need to be right all the time. Worry less about what people will say. Spend less time waiting for the perfect solution, gathering all the data needed to make the perfect decision in order to avoid criticism. Reach a balance between thinking and taking action.
  • Avoid procrastination: Plan and schedule time to do tasks at hand (divide them into thirds to make them manageable). Do 10% of each task immediately to better gauge what it will take to do the task. Don’t wait until the last moment to act (even if you think you function better that way).
  • Organize: Set tight priorities and focus on them. Be disciplined and don't get bogged down in trivia.
  • Analyze without being paralyzed: Act as soon as you can with a reasonable amount (though not all) of the data. Start by making smaller decisions more quickly, and without over-analyzing.
  • Pay attention to timeliness: Transfer the behaviors that you use to make timely decisions to areas in which you procrastinate or avoid making decisions. Get past your attitude barriers. Acquire information to make decisions in areas in which you lack expertise.
  • Mentally rehearse or prepare for giving timely decisions to difficult people: Anticipate what they may say and have responses prepared. Focus on only two or three points in which conflict may arise.
  • Think of a big decision as a series of smaller ones: Make smaller decisions and get immediate feedback. You don’t always have to get it right the first time; make an educated guess and then adjust as necessary. Do small things quickly, and be willing to take a little heat if the decision needs to be modified.
  • Drop the problem for a moment: When you are stressed by time pressure, do something else for a while. Come back to the issue when you are in better control and less anxious. Let your brain work on it while you do something else.
  • Announce your decisions when you make them: Declare your decision as soon as you have made it, even if you are wary of getting some flack. If necessary, you can quickly adjust your decision and move on.
  • Be prepared to defend your decision: After scoping out the problem, consider the options, pick one, develop a rationale, and go to others. Anticipate objections, listen to criticism, and revise if necessary.
Learning from develop-in-place assignments: These part-time develop-in-place assignments will help you build your skill(s).
  • Become a referee for an athletic program.
  • Launch a new program, procedure, or curriculum.
  • Relaunch an existing program or procedure that is not going well.
  • Work on a crisis management team.
Learning more from your plan: These additional remedies will help make this development plan more effective for you.
  • Learning to learn better:
    • Teach others something you don't know well. Pick something new, different, and unfamiliar.
    • Think and talk more in probabilities and less in absolutes. Establish what's real about your suggestions and ideas rather than wanting to always be 100% correct. Tell people how sure you are before you make a statement.
    • Commit to a tight timeframe to accomplish something. Establish a firm plan and stick to it.
    • Do something on "gut feel" more than on analysis. Go with your hunches instead of always careful planning. Take a few risks; practice a little trial and error and learn to deal with making mistakes.
  • Learning from experience, feedback, and other people:
    • Get feedback from those in authority. Communicate that you are open to constructive criticism and are willing to work on issues they view as important.
    • Get feedback from your direct reports. Set a positive tone, and don’t retaliate if you don't agree.
    • Get feedback from peers or colleagues. Promote trust to get honest, quality feedback.
    • Be cautious of feedback obtained in temporary and extreme contexts. It likely won’t reflect your normal behavior.

Recommended readings

  • Badaracco, Joseph L., Jr.LeadingQuietly.Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
  • Carrison, Dan.Deadline! How Premier Organizations win the Race Against Time.New York: AMACOM, 2003
  • Gartner, Scott Sigmund.Strategic Assessment in War.Hew Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.
  • Hammer, Michael.The Agenda: What Every Business Must Do to Dominate the Decade.New York: Crown Business Publishing, 2001.
  • Holland, Winford E. Dutch.Change is the Rule: Practical Actions for Change: On Target, on Time, on Budget.Chicago: Dearborn Trade Publishing, 2000.
  • Jennings, Jason, and Laurence Haughton.It’s Not the Big That Eat the Small…It’s the Fast That Eat the Slow.New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
  • Klein, Gary.Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions.Boston: MIT Press, 1999.
  • Maihafer, Harry J.Brave Decisions: Moral Courage from the Revolutionary War to Desert Storm.Washington, DC: Batsford Brassey, Inc., 1999.
  • McGee, Kenneth.Heads Up: How to Anticipate Business Surprises and Seize Opportunities First.Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004.
  • Muirhead, Brian K., and William L. Simon.High Velocity Leadership: The Mars Pathfinder Approach to Faster, Better, Cheaper.New York: HarperBusiness, 1999.
  • Murnighan, John Keith, and John C. Mowen.The Art of High-Stakes Decision-Making: Tough Calls in a Speed-Driven World.New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002.
  • Russo, J. Edward, and Paul J.H. Schoemaker with Margo Hittleman.Winning Decisions: Getting It Right the First Time.New York: Currency, 2002.
  • Wall, Stephen J.On the Fly: Executing Strategy in a Changing World.New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004.
  • Watkins, Michael.The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels.Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.

Next steps

Copyright © 1992, 1996, 2001-2003 by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This work is derived from the LEADERSHIP ARCHITECT® Competency Library developed and copyrighted by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo for Lominger Limited, Inc.

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success.