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When making important decisions, it’s important to differentiate between what you “can do” and what you “should” do. When that distinction isn’t clear, it’s often because biases, obstacles or roadblocks are obstructing your view of the alternatives and hindering your decision-making process.

The “should do” vs. “could do” dilemma

This dilemma plays out all around us and I am constantly aware of its ramifications in both my personal life and my professional life. I have watched my colleagues, my clients, and my family members wrestle with it. For example, when there is a long to-do list of things that a team must accomplish to complete a project, most people’s first inclination is to take the path of least resistance. They focus on what they “can do” easily instead of what they “should do”. As a result, they knock a few easy things off the list and leave the more involved items on the list for others. The items that are trickier to accomplish then become the burden of the few competent people who are the most capable of making them happen. Not only is this unfair, but it’s also usually inefficient. Completing the tasks may be easier if you approach them differently. The key is to start with the premise that every item on the list “should” get done and then determine the best path to take to ensure the successful completion of each one. Often, the best way to accomplish your goal or solve your problem may not be immediately obvious until you remove obstacles from your thinking. Realizing that there are obstacles (both real and psychological) in your way, is a critical first step.

The best path may not be obvious

After you identify and remove any biases that obstruct your thought processes, business and personal problems become easier to solve and the approach you “should” take may become clear. For example, consider a dilemma that occurred while my team was on a business process redesign engagement with a client. Our team was tasked with developing a strategic roadmap for the future of the organization and had asked the organization to provide financial data to help us assess its current state. Our first pass at the data, which came from several divisions within the organization, left us with more questions than answers. Eventually, we realized that the common thread in the data from all the different sources was that each dataset included psychological biases. Each division of the organization had provided its own data, but much of that data had been unintentionally biased by employees who had included their personal perspectives on subjects such as people, the organization and potential roadblocks to success. It seemed impossible to get a view of what direction the organization “should” take or even what directions it “could” take because the psychological biases of those delivering the data blocked our view of potential opportunities.

After realizing that we couldn’t use the data provided by the separate divisions, we decided to think outside the box by seeking the help of the one person who had access to all the organization’s data, the assistant to the president. With the pure unfiltered data his data scientists provided, all biases were eliminated, and it took us just three sessions with him to complete our assessment. We ended up with unfiltered data that supported separate P&L statements for each division within the organization. The details in this data led to big insights. What we uncovered was that some of the more profitable divisions were being allocated costs that belonged to the least profitable division and this was hurting their financial standings. Looking at the unfiltered data allowed our team to detect that the division with the highest costs had the lowest sales. The other divisions were all being allocated a portion of that division’s costs. As a result, they all appeared to have too much debt and to be unprofitable. However, the reality was that many of the divisions were thriving. The debt they needed to overcome wasn’t theirs.

The organization’s leadership hadn’t realized how extremely profitable some of the individual divisions were because they were only looking at P&L statements that included the unrelated debt. This blocked their vision into the success some divisions were experiencing. Gaining access to the unfiltered data made it possible to look at each division individually. This allowed us to advise our client’s decision-making in essential areas such as determining whether the low-performing division could be saved or should be sold.

Which path should you take?

Whether solving a personal problem or analyzing an organization’s data, it is essential to recognize and eliminate any biases or obstacles that may exist in your thought processes so that you can see the opportunities they may be blocking. Objectivity is often the key to ensuring the most unbiased view of your data. Enlisting the help of an impartial third party will allow you to gain the outside-in perspective you need to neutralize the unintentional biases that can be present even in pure unfiltered data. By removing psychological barriers, you may end up with an opportunity set that isn’t otherwise visible. This affords you the best view of your alternatives and allows you to prioritize action steps for the greatest impact.

When trying to solve a problem in your professional or personal life, my advice is to consider the various paths you “can” take and then, from the best alternatives, figure out which path you “should” take and how to get there. The best path may not be obvious until you remove obstacles from your thought processes, but your efforts will pay off. Once you are on the path you know you “should” be on, take it, and don’t look back.

Therese Fauerbach is the CEO and Co-Founder of The Northridge Group, a growing management consulting firm that specializes in delivering value to clients and ensuring a better experience for their customers. To learn more, contact us.

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