Practical Decision Making: getting it righter
Until a decision gets made – to adopt an idea, buy something, agree to negotiation terms, choose one thing over another, or take action in any way – there can be no completed transaction. With the most accurate data, the most efficient solution, or the very best idea or moral righteousness, until or unless there’s agreement and action, nothing new occurs and there is no change. We can be right, smart, efficient, and moral – and buy-in can elude us regardless of how ‘right’ or ‘rational’ or necessary the new decision would be.
Every decision, after all, is a change management problem. Whether it’s a personal decision or the result of corporate, scientific, or professional judgments, a decision represents an addition to, or subtraction from, something within the status quo that would be effected by new or different information. So making a decision is not merely about the actual facts, input/output, risks, uncertainty, or acquired information, but about the process of acceptance, buy-in, and flexibility of the system to adopt to change.
I realize that much of the decision making field focuses on ‘good data’, ‘rational decisions’, or ‘reducing bias’, but the subjective, systemic portion of decision making is typically omitted: Until or unless there is a route to adoption that is acceptable to the status quo – regardless of the efficacy of the results – decision making is incomplete.
GOOD DATA IS NOT ENOUGH
Too often we assume that ‘good data’ is the lynchpin for ‘rational’ action. But if that were all that we needed, there’d be a lot less failure. How does it happen that even with right on our side we can end up wrong? By shifting the focus from rational decisions, odds, data, risk, and probabilities – the best outcome – to a focus on enabling our subjective biases to expand the parameters of the search, adoption, and possibility, decision making can be more effective.
We’ve studied decision making for millennia, with a consistent focus on a ‘rational’ outcome based on ‘facts’. Weighted averages and data/accuracy seem to be the most used organizing principles. We always, it seems, associate decision making with ‘good data‘ good choices, risk, and tasks to be completed. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky say that people make ‘casino decisions’: they gather probabilistic possibilities and calculate the best route between them. But after years of trial and error they found the focus on helping people make ‘good’, ‘rational’ decisions to be of “limited success”. According to Michael Lewis’s new book The Undoing Project, Kahneman said it was necessary to evaluate a decision “not by its outcomes – whether it turned out to be right or wrong – but by the process that let to it.”
I believe the problem lie on the personal, subjective end of decision making. Before we even get to the weighted criteria, data, or ‘rational facts’, our largely unconscious beliefs have restricted the range of possible outcomes by limiting our search criteria, restricting our curiosity and goal-setting, and reducing adoption. In other words, our process limits the full range of possibilities. We’re not even curious about whatever may lie outside the parameters of what we ‘know’ in our guts, or in our intuition, to be true. Our unconscious sabotages our decisions. We must shift the focus away from data and the statistically correct answer, and concentrate on managing our systemic, subjective bias.
HOW SUBJECTIVE BIAS SABOTAGES US
Let me explain my shift in focus. As humans, we make hundreds of small and large decisions a day. Most of them are quick, simple, and vary on a continuum between conscious and unconscious: which jacket to wear, where to go on vacation, whether or not to say something or keep quiet. When we think something is missing or incomplete and seek a different outcome, we weight and consider facts or givens against our personal criteria (beliefs, values, history, knowledge, assumptions). All options get assessed according to how closely they match our internal, weighted hierarchies of beliefs and values (usually unconscious). Indeed, it’s only when we’re convinced that our current data or status quo seems lacking and the new choices feel either more accurate or comfortable, are we willing to shift our status quo to adopt new information.
Teams or companies seeking good decisions for new choices do something similar: facts get researched and weighted according to the goals of a limited group of leaders and the most acceptable sources; assessments get made against the status quo and accepted industry norms; and change is meant to happen according to some acceptable value structure.
But whether personal or corporate, the human side of decision making is often ignored: separate from the facts, the weighting, the ‘rational’ or the optimal, our subjective biases – sometimes referred to as our ‘intuition’, instinct, or our ‘gut’ – restrict what’s possible. Indeed, long before we determine possible options for choices we give ourselves over to our unconscious beliefs and subjective biases that create the parameters of possibility in the first place. If we don’t believe climate change has a human component, for example, we won’t feel the need to decide on which recycle bin to purchase, and will find ‘rational’ reasons not to believe a scientific argument filled with proven facts, regardless of its efficacy.
WHAT’S OUTSIDE OUR CONSCIOUS CHOICE
All new decisions must comply with our internal balance, (Systems Congruence): our unconscious, subjective, belief-based criteria is personal, historic, idiosyncratic, and identity based – separate from any external data available or outcome sought. We even seek references that match our beliefs: with an infinite range of data points available, we only consider that tiny portion of available data that makes sense to us, thereby restricting our data gathering severely; we dismiss, ignore, or resist any incoming data that runs counter to our values and internal status quo. With our subjective filters interpreting information, our unconscious biases take in, or leave out, potentially important data. You see, if we don’t maintain our current beliefs, rules, and status quo we face a potentially disruptive change in our systemic structure, regardless of the facts, or the weighted averages or the ‘rational’ choice.
In other words, our decisions are restricted by our subjective biases and need for Systems Congruence, whether they are personal decisions or family/business-related ones, whether they lead to ‘rational’ decisions or not. Indeed, who exactly judges what’s ‘rational’? We each consider our decisions ‘rational’ as they comply with our own belief structure and knowledge at the time we’re making them. Imagine saying to yourself, “I think I’ll make an irrational decision.” ‘Irrational’ is a subjective term used by outsiders judging our output against their own beliefs (and what they consider to be ‘objective’ or ‘rational’ standards). I always ask, “Irrational according to who?” After all, science is merely a story in time, and ‘facts’ change (Remember when eggs were bad? Or when making an online purchase was a risk?), and there are oh-so-many to choose from!
I once helped a friend decide on what to do with her attic. For years she fought herself on different types of wood and floor plan/design and couldn’t form a decision to take action because of her confusion. When we got to her unconscious weighted hierarchy of beliefs she realized she hated her house, but hadn’t wanted to consciously admit that to herself because moving would uproot her family. She had unconsciously delayed her decision, consciously focusing on entirely different issues to avoid dealing with a much larger problem. She was stuck considering the ‘wrong’ decision criteria for 3 years.
When we ignore our unconscious, we either delay a decision because it doesn’t feel right, gather data from insufficient sources, use partial data and miss the full picture or possibilities, or face a lack of buy-in, sabotage, or resistance. To get a good decision, we need to expand our scope of possibility and separate ourselves from our biases. We can never get it ‘right’, but we can get it ‘righter.’
IS IMPLEMENTATION NECESSARY?
One of my beliefs is that without action, without achieving the output of a decision, we end up with failure, regardless of the accuracy of the facts. This is quite prevalent in among the Decision Scientist community. After keynoting to 200 Decision Scientists on Facilitating Decision Making a few years ago, I sat with them afterword and listened to them loudly bemoan the 97% implementation failure rate (Sadly, a common problem in the field.) they face. Here was part of our Q&A.
SDM: How do you prepare for a smooth implementation, or encourage buy-in?
We provide the best options as per our research. It’s their problem if they can’t implement. Our job is to find the right solutions and hand them over.
SDM: How do you acquire accurate criteria to design your research?
We speak with folks who want the decision.
SDM: If you’re only speaking to a subset (influencers, superiors, clients) of users, how can buy-in be achieved – even with good data and rational choices – if the full set of facts are possibly not being considered? Aren’t you limiting your fact-gathering to a predisposed subset? Aren’t you moving forward without consideration of those who may be involved at some point, have unique goals and data, and resist implementing decisions well outside their value structure?
Not our problem.
SDM: How can say you’re offering a ‘good decision’ if some of those who need to use the decision aren’t ready, willing, or able to adopt it because their reality was excluded from the initial data gathering?
We gather criteria from the folks who hire us, from recognized sources, and weight the probabilities. We give them good data. Feelings have nothing to do with it. Rational data is rational data.
They wouldn’t even consider that by doing initial fact-gathering from as large a set of people involved as possible, they’d not only acquire a larger set of identified goals, parameters and foundational beliefs and values that uphold the status quo, but they’d set the stage for follow-on buy-in.
When we use a subset of possibilities and people to define the objective criteria for a decision and exclude the available personal criteria, and when we use our instinctive judgements as out lens, we face the possibility of gathering insufficient data and alienating those would might benefit from the outcome of the decision; we are ceding control to our very subjective, and biased, unconscious. How can we willingly take action if it goes against our unconscious drivers, regardless of the efficacy of the available information? How can we know where to gather data from if we only pursue a biased segment of what’s available? How can we know if our decisions will be optimal if we’re being unconsciously restricted by our subjective biases and do not gather data from, recognize, or realize that we are restricting the full set of possibilities?
WHAT DOES OUR UNCONSCIOUS WANT?
All of us pit our unconscious drivers – our beliefs and values, expectations and biases – against our ability to change (And I repeat: any decision is a change management problem. To adopt something new, something old must be replaced or added.). To focus merely on external facts defies logic. In order to make our best decisions we (even teams and families) must integrate our conscious with our unconscious and find a route that expands scope and possibility without provoking resistance. Here are some questions to ask ourselves:
What are my gut thoughts about what a new result would look like, act like, achieve? Am I comfortable with a change? Am I willing to contain/expand the parameters of the status quo? What would cause me to resist?
How far outside of my own beliefs am I willing to go to make sure I have as expansive a range of possible data as possible? Or must I maintain my current parameters (beliefs, or external mandates) regardless of the restrictions this poses on the outcome?
Should I add to what I already know? Or am I willing to explore what’s outside of my knowledge base that may make me uncomfortable? Where would I find acceptable resources to explore – and what would I find unacceptable?
What do I need to believe to be willing to consider data that I don’t ordinarily trust…and what, exactly constitutes trust?
Is there an inclusive idea that’s a ‘chunk up’ from my starting place that might encourage expansive consideration? I.e. if resistance is apparent, is there an idea, an outcome, which encapsulates the proposed change that doesn’t cause resistance? If everyone is fighting over house ownership in a divorce, maybe everyone can agree that a house is necessary for everyone’s well-being and move forward from there.
STEPS TO BETTER DECISION MAKING
There is a point when gathering data is necessary. But when? Here are steps to knowing when it’s time:
- Make sure all users – all – and influencers (or personally, brainstorm yourself for all surrounding data points of possibility, regardless of how outlandish) are involved in the initial data gathering and outcome-setting.
- Get internal (personal or team) agreement for high level beliefs, values, and outcomes as to what a final solution should/shouldn’t entail.
- Elicit concerns, fears, beliefs that any change would bring.
- Elicit hopes and viewpoints as to best outcomes, goals, and options.
- Everyone involved do research on data sources, studies, comparative projects, possible problems (or personally, research all brainstormed possibilities) using agreed-upon resources for data gathering, testing, parameters for results.
- Reach consensus on 5, then begin a typical decision analysis/weighting.
With this approach*, your testing and data gathering will have the possibility of being more reliable and complete, will reach the broadest parameters of choice, possibility, agreement, and will encourage buy-in for action. You’ll also be in place for implementing without resistance. Again, the final decision may not be ‘right’ because no decisions ever are, but it will certainly be ’righter.’
*For those wishing an expanded discussion/explanation of how to generate unbiased choice, read Chapter 6 of What? Did you really say what I think I heard?. I’ve also coded the sequential steps the brain travels en route to choice, and developed a model (Buying Facilitation®) that facilitates decision making and congruent change, for use in sales, coaching, negotiating, and leadership.