Decisions, Decisions

The Idea: We spend much of our lives making decisions. Too often we use the wrong tools to make them, and, not surprisingly, end up making the wrong decisions. Or putting off making a decision at all.

When I was in university (1970s) everyone thought Decision Support Systems would be the wave of the future. Computers would be able to factor in all the criteria and information and virtually make the decision for us. But while technology has been helpful in organizing the information needed to make decisions, it has only simplified and streamlined the decision-making process in a few narrow areas, where little or no judgement is called for. Most of us still spend an astronomical amount of our time making decisions (or putting off making them) and looking for information pertinent to decisions we need to make next.

I mentioned recently Dave Snowden’s multi-ontology sense-making project, diagrammed above. His thesis is that before you can make sense of a situation (or make decisions about it) you need to understand whether the underlying environment is simple, complicated, complex, or chaotic. So in a simple situation, such as prioritization of a small, fixed number of ‘to dos’, simple tools like Getting Things Done can help substantially. The decision-making process in these situations is linear. Answer a set of simple questions and the decision (what to do next) is obvious.

DecisionProcessIn a complicated situation, such as deciding what an allergic patient is suffering from, more sophisticated tools are needed to understand all the variables (decision criteria and alternatives) and how they affect the decision. Systems Thinking methodology, and the NASA process illustrated at right, are examples of tools appropriate for complicated decisions. The decision-making process is systematic. Understand the information underlying the decision, and the cause-and-effect relationships between elements of this information. From this understanding of the ‘mechanics’ of the system, identify all of the decision alternatives. Then assess the criteria that affect your decision, and how important each criterion is, and the best alternative ‘pops out’. Review the decision to ensure that it ‘makes sense’ (and if it doesn’t, go back and change the ‘map’ of the system, the alternatives, the criteria and/or the weights until a sensible decision is produced).

There are two main dangers with this methodology. The first is that if the environment is actually complex, and we have reduced it to merely complicated, the system map will be incomplete and erroneous, and so will the list of alternatives from which the decision is made.

The second danger is that we will have actually made the decision based on more subjective criteria, and we will therefore deliberately bias the system map, the alternatives, the decision criteria and the weights to yield the predetermined answer. This is bad enough when we do it knowingly and deliberately, to justify a decision we have made in our own minds based on fuzzy or unfathomable logic, or no logic at all. But there is some evidence that we do this all the time, perverting what could be a useful decision-making process into a misleading and slanted decision-justifying process. There is little doubt, for example, that the selective ignoring and distortion of facts, dubious cause-and-effect analysis, selective and incomplete enumeration of alternatives and biased weighting was used to justify the invasion of Iraq on the grounds of its posing a threat to US security. The result was ‘sold’ to the American public as a logical decision, when it was either nothing of the sort, or else was the result of logic and information that the administration was unwilling to share with the citizens.

There are software tools that take you through the NASA complicated-environment decision-making process in more detail. I don’t think they address either of the two dangers above, but they can take you through the process if the number of variables, relationships and decision criteria get unwieldy.

I think it is human nature to make initial decisions quickly and on the basis of the best information available that fits with our existing frames of understanding, and to change our minds after that reluctantly. No software or other tool is going to correct that, and make us more open-minded. We need to acknowledge that our decision on what television programs to watch today, or what websites to visit, for example, is unlikely to be changed by adding more rigour to the decision-making process. Even the way we ‘map’ the system: assess the situation, gather facts, assess unknowns, and connect the dots of causality and implication, are filtered by our existing frames, the mental models through which we perceive and conceive. The best any tool can do is to draw our attention to facts, relationships, alternatives and criteria we might have missed.

What would be more useful is a tool that would allow us to see how others facing the same decision process would go through these same steps, and would give us some appreciation of how our frames colour our decision-making. And of course, it would be useful to capture and tap the Wisdom of Crowds — the collective decision that many informed, independent people would make using the information, alternatives and criteria personally available to them through their frames of understanding.

aha4In a complex situation, not all of the pertinent information and variables are known or even knowable, so cause-and-effect analysis is of limited use, and even the universe of appropriate decision alternatives is likely to be too large to enumerate.

In these situations, a more sensible approach is to focus on discovering as much as possible about the environment in which the decision must be made, and as many points of view of the potential alternatives and their likely effects. The decision-making process is emergent. An Open Space discovery process that involves as many of the thirteen activities shown on the framework at right, and involves conversation and collaboration with as many people as possible, is likely to lead to the best decisions. In fact, as I suggested the other day, it may be best to push the decision-making out to the front-lines, to each individual involved in the discovery process, so that they can each make the decisions in the context of their personal situation.

And if all this wasn’t difficult enough, often situations are not merely simple, complicated or complex. Some complex environments may have issues or challenges that are simple or complicated, and vice versa.

How about chaotic situations? If you were present when the recent tsunami hit, or the current Marburg or avian flu virus broke out, how would you decide what to do? You would probably rely on your instincts — we are programmed, after all, with three million years of successful evolutionary learnings to handle exactly such situations. The decision-making process in these circumstances is intuitive.

Four kinds of thinking — linear, systematic, emergent, intuitive — for four types of decision situations. No wonder it’s so hard to make decisions. And no wonder we are so tempted to put them off.

This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.