In our day to day lives we make hundreds of decisions. What to eat, what to wear, what meetings to prioritise, and what things are important. Decision making is inescapable, and something that we absolutely must do. We’re unable to make meaningful progress if we try to do everything, and nor should we attempt to do so.
In her TED talk and exploration of How to make hard choices (Chang, R. 2014), Ruth explains that making a choice becomes particularly hard when the differences between choices appears to be marginal. Ruth adds that we further complicate decision making by discussing, measuring, and assessing decisions based on things that are also typically immeasurable, like ‘value’.
We attempt to measure value with equally immeasurable words like ‘better’, ‘more’, and ‘delightful’ which are nearly impossible to be quantified.
Quite often, one or more options for a strategic decision are neither equal, better, or worse than others. Yet, we approach decision making with these three measurements that are simply not applicable for most decisions.
The act of decision making is made even more difficult when we have incomplete information, when we’re emotionally invested, when we are overwhelmed with choice, or when faced with the permanency of our decisions.
Decision making is affected by the emergence of cognitive biases and deviations from rationality in judgment. These biases can negatively influence capability to capture and utilise new ideas, which in turn will inhibit innovation and progress (Kotina, Koria and Prendeville, 2017).
Barry Schwartz’s famed talk focusing on the paradox of choice highlights that an increase of decisions has made us more free, but additionally more paralysed, and that results in two negative effects on people.
The first is that when presented with too many choices we are ultimately overwhelmed and very likely to make no choice at all. One effect [of so much choice], paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all. (Scwartz, B. 2005).
An example is that when offering retirement funds to employees, for every 10 mutual funds an employer offered, the rate of participation went down by 2 percent. This is ‘because with 50 funds to choose from, it's so damn hard to decide which fund to choose, that you'll just put it off till tomorrow, and then tomorrow and then tomorrow and tomorrow, and, of course, tomorrow never comes’, explains Schwartz.
The second negative effect is that, should we be able to make an eventual choice, we will end up feeling less satisfied or even completely dissatisfied with that choice. This is because it is easy to imagine that you could have made a different choice that would have been better (Schwartz, B. 2005).
Choices are thus not only difficult and complex, but they can leave us feeling dissatisfied and feeling bad. No wonder it can seem impossible to make decisions.
Baba Shiv talks to the nature of the feelings after a decision has been made as ‘facing the INCA—Immediate, Negative, Concrete, Agency’. (Shiv, B 2012).
Once we have made a choice, the feedback we get is often immediate. In the case of a purchasing decision, we know the outcome immediately. In the case of a strategic decision it is that the ambiguity isn’t immediately removed and therefore we are left to reconsider our decision.
Baba continues with the notion that, when the decision outcome is negative, the feedback is concrete. Faced with this, you now have a sense of agency. With accepted responsibility, you begin to doubt the decision made.
Schwartz (Schwartz, B. 2005) explains that we then move through a wave of emotions. Regret (or anticipated regret), sorrow for the loss of deemed opportunity costs, and self–blame.
While sometimes the answer to making a decision is to conduct more research, we need to be mindful of the paradox of choice in creating more data to assess.
We rarely have the luxury of time on our side and decisions need to occur so that progress can be made. To make things worse, we’re often in a space of continued ambiguity that rarely becomes clear. In military terms this is often referred to as volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity and will remain a constant.
Regardless of whether additional clarity can be reached or not, there are two ways that we can make meaningful progress without the torment of decision making.
In Buddhist teaching there is a foundational concept of “suffering”. This concept, Dukkha, roughly emphasises that in order to make meaningful progress in life we must first understand and accept the conditions that cause our suffering. By simply taking a moment before a decision has to be made to reflect and accept that you or those around you are making decisions and that decisions are difficult, you will be more comfortable with the process.
To take our self-awareness a step further, we can even practice mindfulness as a way to solidify the ambiguity, the feeling being overwhelmed, and to pre-empt the negative aspects of decision making.
A series of studies have confirmed that mindfulness can not only improve individual emotional management, attention and cognitive control, but also improve individual decision-making ability in different fields (Liu, S., Liu, Y. and Ni, Y. 2018).
Whether we need to make the decision ourselves, or support others in their decision making, it is absolutely critical that we empower decision makers. As outlined above, decision making is already emotionally taxing and tiresome enough without the added pressure of overly justifying a decision to others and the social pressures related.
This is also where courage comes in. You need to have the courage to let other choices go and to focus on the outcome of the decision that has been made. As Baba (Shiv, B. 2014) points out, any prolonged dwelling and second guessing of a decision will also deride the ultimate outcome and you will deliver less because your attention is split.
Making decisions is also fraught with risk, and you will need the courage to accept risks and be able to traverse through a problem space with an eye on the risk, and an eye on progress.
Once we’ve accepted the emotional and human aspect of decision making, we can make the decision making process easier and more structured through co-defining measurements (like 'value').
By spending time upfront in the decision making process outlining principles or heuristics for decision making, the process is far easier. There are a few ways that you can do this:
Leverage your strategy. A strategy will help you to make prioritised decisions removing most of the subjectivity.
Use a framework. For example you could use Desirable, Viable, Feasible or even a conjecture
Agree on two-to-three principles or heuristics. This is a very basic way to make decisions, again, reducing the subjectivity.
To support any of the approaches, Design Thinking provides many frames for making better decisions. The Double-Diamond design process is fundamentally about creating choices, and making choices. Although still maturing as a mindset in many organisations, the value of Design Thinking is neither in its artistic appeal nor its unorthodoxy, but in thinking differently about how to solve business and organisational challenges (Schlenker, L. 2017).
Design Thinking, by its very nature provides tools to reduce or even completely remove cognitive and organisational biases through ethnography, empathy, and by further enhancing the self-awareness aspect of decision making.
In mathematics there is a concept of a conjecture, which is defined as being ‘a proposition before it has been proved or disproved’ (Conjecture, 2019), or put more simply, a proposal that will be carried forward until proven or disproven.
In design we use conjectures to define the solution and the problem at the same time. This iterative loop develops both an in-depth and clearer picture of the problem, and outlines the correct solution at the same time.
This approach can sometimes be called prototyping, but isn’t limited to creating prototypes. There are many ways to feed information back into the design space, and solution space concurrently. We can write prose, draw pictures, or create prototypes amongst many other things.
The ultimate aim is to simply begin to make progress in a direction immediately after a decision has been made, and iterate on the working knowledge developed throughout. The most ideal approach is that when things are unclear and you want to make progress, fight your internal inertia and simply try something. You’ll find it far easier to discuss, progress ideas, and further enhance decisions as they become more tangible.
The process of making strategic decisions is a process that is complex, emotionally taxing and trying, and almost always a hard thing to do. Sure, as you move through the process of making hard decisions you may be missing opportunities (intentionally or accidentally) and even discover at a later date that it was the wrong decision to make.
Yet, by simply understanding the situation through self-awareness and accepting that a decision has to be made, reducing ambiguity by creating decision frameworks we can smooth the entire process out.
So, demonstrate the courage required to make decisions, and make meaningful progress
A leader in design and strategy with a passion for human–centred design systems.