Decisions, Decisions

In life and in work, we are faced with hundreds of decisions every day — some relatively inconsequential (what to wear? when to break for lunch? where to meet up with colleagues or friends?), others career and life changing (which job to take? how to allocate budgets? who to partner with or promote?).

Not all decisions are alike — in importance, impact, or urgency. In my experience, one thing that sets great leaders apart is their ability to make decisions well — at the appropriate speed and level of engagement. Some decisions ought to be delegated, while others require a leader’s personal attention. Some decisions must be made with urgency, while others merit full consideration of facts, alternatives, and consequences, aided by subject matter experts.

There are a host of frameworks that provide guidance for decision making: Three different types of business decisions (strategic, tactical, operational). Five different styles of decision making (rational, intuitive, dependent, avoidant, spontaneous). Six different steps of decision making (based on the acronym “DECIDE”: Define the problem; Establish the criteria; Consider the alternatives; Identify the best alternative; Develop and implement a plan of action; Evaluate and monitor the solution and feedback). These (and many other) frameworks are useful for reference and guidance.

Combat Decision Fatigue

With so many decisions to make, it is often helpful to narrow focus to the ones that need the most attention. When Barak Obama was U.S. president, he said, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” The same is true of Kamala Harris’ default daily morning routine and was the genesis of Steve Jobs’ famed black turtlenecks.

Decision fatigue describes a mental overload. When overwhelmed with decisions, the quality of one’s decisions deteriorates, or else people tend to avoid decisions entirely. Interestingly, studies have shown that when consumers are given too many choices, they are less likely to make any decision at all. Decision fatigue seems even more prevalent during the pandemic, when we’re faced daily with decisions that prior weren’t even on our radar (is it safe to shake hands? do we wear masks in here? how often should we go into the office?).

Eliminating non-critical decisions is one way to combat decision fatigue, something that can be accomplished, for example, with a simplified wardrobe, a recurring grocery order, a weekly meal plan, or a daily routine. Another approach is to delegate some decisions — empowering others (like your spouse or kids, a peer or subordinate at work) to make key choices (and providing guidance, coaching, and feedback to ensure their success). For those important decisions that need your time and attention — prioritize focus there and engage early in the day or when you are most fresh. In my experience, it’s been invaluable to have a trusted confidant who can be a sounding board for big decisions, someone with whom I can brainstorm, share ideas and perspectives, and get feedback.

Leverage Decision-Making Tools

The simplest (and nevertheless eminently useful) decision-making tool is the pros-and-cons list. Who hasn’t used this to help structure thinking about options and tradeoffs? I remember as a kid drawing a vertical line down my notebook paper and scrawling all the reasons to stick with piano lessons on the left side (it would be something I could enjoy as an adult, I wouldn’t disappoint my grandfather or piano teacher…) and the reasons to quit on the right (I would be able to focus more on flute and jazz band, I would have time to join the travel soccer team…). I was fortunate that my parents empowered me to make such a decision at a young age, despite how much I struggled making it.

When it came time for me to decide which college to attend, the pros-and-cons list wasn’t all that helpful. Objectively, my two top selections were both good options, but still I had to make a choice. I used something I call the “candy bar analogy” — asking myself which alternative I would feel most disappointed to miss out on if I were to make the other choice. Say you can only have one candy bar — a Hershey’s bar or a Kit Kat. Both are, objectively, good choices. A pros-and-cons list is unlikely to yield a clear answer. Sometimes you have to go with your gut — to trust your intuition. Let’s say I imagine going with a Kit Kat today. Do I feel especially bad about missing out on that pure milk chocolate Hershey’s bar? If yes, I swap; if no, I stick with the choice. And that’s roughly how I ended up attending Yale College. =)  

Of course, that’s a simplistic technique, but one that, in principle, can be applied in a good many “gut check” choices. Which one feels right? What is the opportunity cost of missing out on the alternative? As leaders, it is often important to trust and act on instincts.

Other decisions require more structured cost-benefit analysis and consideration of options and their consequences. A decision tree provides a flowchart-like structure, enabling visualization and evaluation of scenarios most likely to reach a goal. SWOT analysis helps assess strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to aid decision making. Some decisions can (and should) be automated, using rule engines or machine learning. Decision management systems can improve decision-making processes, adapt to changes in real time, and improve outcomes.

Beware of Cognitive Biases

Cognitive biases are distortions in perception that can affect the quality and outcome of decisions. There are many such cognitive biases, a few of which I’ll discuss here. It’s difficult to eliminate these outright, but awareness is the first step toward reducing their impacts.

Anchoring Bias.We are predisposed to be influenced by the first piece of information presented — whether it’s a first impression, an initial offer, or a preliminary analysis. If we’re not careful, this can lead to a skewed understanding of issues, causes, and options, guiding us to make poor decisions.

Confirmation Bias. Humans tend to favor evidence that supports their beliefs. Taken to an extreme, this manifests as only listening to perspectives or considering data that aligns with and reinforces preconceived ideas, creating an echo chamber, and potentially ignoring (often relevant and valuable) information that runs counter.

Hindsight Bias. In retrospect, everything seems predictable. Sometimes called the “I-knew-it-all-along” affect, we are inclined to believe we could have foreseen certain events. This causes us to overestimate our ability to predict outcomes and may result in taking undue risks.   

Bandwagon Effect. As a social species, humans are likely to take actions that other people are also taking. This is as true in social settings as it is in business. It causes a “fear of missing out” (FOMO) and often results in a dangerous “group think” mentality.

This past weekend I enjoyed watching my son and his high school drama department put on a live production of 12 Angry Jurors, a remake of the classic 1957 movie starring Henry Fonda. The premise of the show is that a jury must decide — unanimously — the fate of a nineteen-year-old boy on trial for murder. The initial vote is 11-1 in favor of a conviction. Over the remaining ninety minutes of dialogue, it becomes clear that every one of these cognitive biases is in play. The first piece of evidence predisposed some jurors to a decision. Others were convinced because the evidence seemed to support their preconceived notions of poor people. “It’s not easy to stand alone,” they say of Juror #8, played by Fonda and this weekend by my son. And by the end, the jurors finally agree to acquit — after repeated questioning, reviewing the data, scrutinizing the options, and staying grounded in sound logic and core principles.

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