Decision making simplified

We’re all faced with many decisions every day, and we tend to think we’re rational and in control, at least when it comes to simple decisions. Yet even seemingly simple decisions can turn out to be complex when you take all factors into account. So how do we know we’re making decisions in the best way possible? How do we evaluate our decisions? And can we learn to make better decisions? This topic has come up at more than one event I’ve attended recently: At the January dinner meeting of the San Francisco Bay Area Project Management Institute, Dr. Errol Wirasinghe, author of The Art of Making Decisions, delved into these questions in an engaging and compelling talk. And decision making was a prevalent theme in the recent “Program Manager Summit” held by my group at Adobe.

Why is decision making so complex? For one, emotions and unconscious thoughts influence us more than we think, leading to irrational decisions. Think about simple decisions we make in our daily lives. Who hasn’t chosen to buy higher-priced items on the assumption that they must be of higher quality, without any proof that they are? And when we’re overwhelmed by too many choices, we can feel paralyzed and fail to make a decision at all. This is common in today’s world: not only do we have all kinds of choices our ancestors wouldn’t have dreamed of, but thanks to the Internet, we suffer from information overload.

As hard as it can be to make decisions in our private lives, at work we might encounter further obstacles. A pitfall to watch for in the modern workplace, where so much of our work is collaborative, is Groupthink, a situation in which a cohesive group tries to reach consensus and minimize conflict — often leading to bad decisions. The disadvantages of Groupthink can outweigh the many benefits of a working environment that values consensus over a hierarchical style. To avoid falling into Groupthink, it helps to create an environment that encourages healthy conflict, one of the pillars of a high-functioning team. Managing conflict well can allow a group to take advantage of the Wisdom of Crowds. This might seem counterintuitive in light of the dangers of Groupthink, but it turns out that when a group contains diverse individuals who are empowered to think for themselves, the group tends to arrive at better decisions than even an expert individual.

Another danger for groups that tend to work by consensus is that decisions won’t get made at all. Using tools like the DACI model can help, but what about simple decisions that must be made quickly? One of the speakers at our summit uses this method to facilitate making quick decisions: When a proposal is made, everyone in the room gives a thumbs-up, a flat hand (signaling neutral feelings), a thumbs-down, or a double-thumbs-down. Then, only the proposer and those with thumbs-down are allowed to speak, till a decision is arrived at. Presumably, this would work best in a culture that favors the Wisdom of Crowds over Groupthink.

For more complex decisions, more structured processes can help. Dr. Wirasinghe has developed a 7-step approach to making decisions (there’s a lot more to it than I can include here; see

  1. Clearly define objectives. Dr. Wirasinghe notes that at one point, the U.S. Army had given soldiers excellent training in shooting a gun, yet a large percentage of them were not killing the enemy. When the goal was changed to teaching the soldiers to kill, those numbers changed drastically. Whatever you may think of war and killing, this shows the value of a well-defined objective.
  2. Identify all relevant criteria. It’s important to select just the most relevant criteria — if you include too many, you’ll dilute each one. A good guideline is to cap the number at 8 – 12.
  3. Segregate the criteria. Decide which are obligatory and which are merely desirable.
  4. Identify all candidates/options. Creative thinking helps here, as opposed to critical thinking — because your best decision can only be as good as your best option.
  5. Gather information on the candidates or options. Note the pros and cons of each, based on the criteria you have selected. The more information you gather, the better informed your decision will be.
  6. Assign weights to the obligatory criteria. This is important because even the obligatory criteria don’t all have the same importance.
  7. Rank the candidates or options. It helps to use a pairwise analysis, comparing two criteria at a time, because it’s much easier to rate two items at a time than a larger number.

How do you determine if you’ve made a good decision? If you use Dr. Wirasinghe’s approach, an interesting method of validating your final ranking is to use an N-1 analysis, in which you look at what happens when you remove one criterion at a time. If removing one drives the decision, you may decide a certain criterion is not so important after all. For example, suppose that based on your combined criteria, Candidate A was clearly the one to hire for a job opening. However, if you remove the criterion that the person be available in 2 weeks, suddenly Candidate C becomes the obvious choice. In this case, you might ask if it’s worth waiting another week or two to hire the right person.

Whether decisions are simple or complex, when evaluating them, the outcome is only part of the story; the quality of a decision is not the same as the outcome. When things go wrong, ask which domain they went wrong in. And realize that knowledge and circumstances change. You may have made the best possible decision based on your knowledge at the time, but you may not have had all the knowledge you needed. Or new factors may have come into play, changing the outcome. Like everything else in life, all decisions must be temporary, and when circumstances change, even the best decision may have to be revisited. But if you have the right tools, then at least you have a better chance of making a good decision in the first place.

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