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Principles and Preferences

I once heard a CEO while on retreat ask his executive team how they could contribute twice as much, without working more. The ensuing conversation was fascinating. As I listened I realized that much of what they were discussing was about how to "play bigger."

Many companies spend substantial time and resources on developing greater competence in decision-making. And yet I wonder if we’ve missed a critical distinction – what decisions should you be making? Many leaders have found it useful to consider the distinction between principles and preferences.

Considered Preference

  • When one possibility is as good as another
  • Not a “right” answer
  • When your investment in the solution is personal
  • When expertise belongs to someone else
  • About process or appearance
  • Partly based on level/responsibility
  • Impacts only this one thing

Considered Principle

  • Strategic or ethical implications
  • When you are the primary expert
  • When the decision sets a precedent for future decisions
  • When you are the expert
  • About results/outcomes
  • When values are clear
  • Decision impacts many things

Many leaders expend time and energy making (or at least discussing) decisions that really should be made by someone else. I call these “decisions of preference.”  I actually knew a CEO once (far far from here!) who couldn’t resist such critical decisions as the color of the carpet and which coffee vendor to use. Preference means that there is no principle at stake, it is truly just my preference and there exist many other reasonable possibilities. The opportunity that exists for leaders is in the ability to identify and let go of those things that are truly preferences. In how many conversations do you find yourself every day that are about your preference vs. someone else’s preference?

On the other hand we have decisions of principle. There are at least two opportunities for leaders. The first is that preference most likely follows clear principles. This suggests that if you are clear about your principles, the choice among preferences will be limited to those possibilities that meet the agreed upon principles. Secondly, it suggests that leaders should step up and into discussions where principles are being debated. Unlike carpet color and coffee vendors, these things matter. If the CEO I mentioned earlier had approached the move to a new location with principles in mind he might have established a clear agreement with the committee that was tasked with getting the new location ready. That agreement might have been something like this:

  1. Color, design and décor will reflect our organization’s values of openness and innovation.
  2. Vendors will be chosen after a competitive bid process during which service options will be weighed against cost.

Agreeing on these principles, and letting go of final decisions (provided they met the principles) would have saved this CEO immeasurable time and energy.

I suspect that this example, while true, is in the extreme.  In my recent conversations with leaders where this came up they all had realizations about those areas where they could better balance principles and preferences. 

Where can you do a better job of balancing principles and preferences? 
What gets in the way of your ability to “let go” of preference-based decisions?