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  • Writer's pictureDavid Cope

Decision Making When You Aren't a Robot

Updated: Feb 6, 2020


It's that time of the year perhaps. You've been making a decision on who to vote for, what to buy your loved ones for Christmas and deciding on business priorities for 2020. Making big decisions can be hard work, so here are some ideas on how to make it easier.



I've been working for a large scientific institution recently, helping them to work through how to take a big decision they have on the horizon. And it has gotten me thinking about decision-making, what makes it so hard and how to make it easier so that you don't endlessly avoid it, worrying about making the wrong decision. I thought I'd share what I've learnt in three parts.


Part 1: don't wait until you have to take the decision to think about it


Sometimes you wake up in the morning and something has come out of the blue that requires urgent action and you've got to decide on how to handle it. However, on the whole, we know that Christmas is coming, that there's an election being called or the annual business planning round is coming up. We have time to think about it. And even if you have to deal with a crisis, you can definitely prepare for it!


A few ways that I have seen people prepare well for a decision include:

Keep your ultimate goal in mind. Evaluate everything about how likely your decision is to move you closer towards vs. further away from that destination. I've worked in places where people regularly asked 'will it make the boat go faster?'. Communicate that ultimate goal widely so that those around you know the context of your thinking.

Understand your personal (or company) values. One of the things that makes decision-making stressful is when the options on the table are in tension with your values. Putting yourself under undue stress can impair our decision-making ability, recognising that fact up front, before you're in the middle of a decision and starting to feel the pressure, is a godsend.

Practice makes perfect. This may sound like a daft thing to say (especially when it comes to choosing the best Christmas present for your favourite aunt), but we only rarely have to take really big decisions and so it shouldn't be a surprise when we struggle to do so. In crisis management or business continuity planning, running desktop exercises or role-playing real emergencies is routine, because it is proven to help us deal with the real situation when it happens.

He used to be fairly indecisive, but now he's not so certain (Peter Alliss, golf commentator)

Part 2: get other people involved, and give them all a role to play


At one time or another, we have all probably despaired that we're the only sensible person in the room, I hope everyone agrees that diversity of thought helps achieve better outcomes. So it follows that if we involve several people in decision-making, then we will have been able to look at it from more perspectives than we could alone, and the ultimate decision will be more rounded and better.


But if we get 10 people in a room and just say 'let's make a decision', we run the risk of either arguing forever as we can't agree on where to start, or the loudest voice dominates. Putting some structure or facilitation into the mix helps ensure we can capture the opportunities that group decision-making provides, without suffering from the downside risks. Here are some tools to help structure group decision-making:

Assign roles. Decision-making is a team endeavour and you need people in each of the roles to be successful. Many people will have used RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) as a framework, but I prefer Bain's RAPID (Recommend, Agree, Perform, Input, Decide) model.

Horses for courses. Not every decision needs input from everyone. In fact, many decisions will suffer from too many competing voices - if your building is on fire, you basically want somebody who knows where the fire exit is to shout 'this way!'. NOBL have put together a neat guide to help you align your decision-making approach to the specific situation you are facing. They even have a handy chat-bot to guide you through itchat-bot to guide you through it.

Think of your decision-making as designing a solution. Design thinking has risen in profile over the last few years. Since Apple's iPhone brought considered design to the masses, the tools and techniques of design have been applied beyond product design and are moving into the Board Room. At the heart of design thinking are the twin ideas of being user-centric and experimentation, which leads to higher levels of innovation and adoption. When you're faced with a decision to take, ask yourself whether you can design the solution rather than picking an option. I previously put together a list of my favourite resources for design thinking.

Those wise decisions you make when you are young are the foolish ones you have to live with when you are old (unknown)

Part 3: choose wisely!


When faced with a big decision, picking the 'right' path can become a big deal. But being right or wrong isn't always as binary as it may seem. If we adopt the mindset of 'I never fail, I only learn', each decision-making point is a growth opportunity. That's not to say that bad decisions don't have bad consequences - companies fail, unwanted gifts go straight to the charity shop, bad governments get elected - but not all decisions are at the same point on the scale.


I've had these ideas recommended to me previously, and I think they can help us make wise choices:

Follow a logic model. Most organisations will have some sense of the rational logic of how they create value for their customers or beneficiaries. This may be described as a logic model, a theory of change, a value chain or outcome system map. Even if it isn't explicitly written down, it should be implicitly understood. A useful way of looking at all decisions you are faced with is asking yourself where in the logic model this decision is going to make a difference, and it can then be followed through. This also has the added benefit of helping you understand the potential unintended consequences of your decision and what conditions further down the value chain you are assuming are in place to support your decision.

Define success. And define failure. Assessing your options against whether they will help deliver your objectives is a pretty standard approach to option evaluation. This approach is based in the economic theory of maximisation - that we want to maximise the positives, net of the negatives. So we write objectives of 'more', 'better', 'bigger' etc. and then try to find options that deliver us 'most', 'best', 'biggest' etc. But actually, psychology tells us that being satisfied is sometimes good enough, so we don't need to maximise, we just need to avoid failure, and that will feel like success. So when you are defining your objectives, make sure you include criteria that allow you to spot when you've avoided failure and that may well be plenty good enough.

Conduct a pre-mortem. If you've ever asked yourself 'what's the worst that could happen?' when making a decision, then you've conducted a pre-mortem. Imagine yourself in the future, looking back on this decision and everything since has gone wrong as a result of it - what happened, why did it happen, how could you have avoided it happening? By conducting a pre-mortem during your decision-making, you can tailor your choices, put in place mitigating actions and avoid that worst world. This can also be combined with a blindspot analysis.

By making the right choices, we can make the right choice for our future (George W Bush)

It isn't rocket science


In this blog, I've avoided talk about decision science, artificial intelligence, multi-criteria decision analysis and all the various quantitative approaches to decision-making. That isn't because I don't think they are worthwhile - I'm an analyst by background and have created quantitative decision-support tools on several occasions. They can be hugely valuable, but in my opinion they should only be part of the decision-making process.


Making decisions of consequence is something that people do pretty well at, and perhaps should always continue to do so to ensure accountability. The rise of AI and algorithms will be a helpful tool for decision-making, but I think that all the points I've identified above will continue to be important for decades to come. The rise of the robots should actually encourage us to get better at decision-making, using the approaches I've suggested here as well as others.


Over to you


What do you think of all this? I'd love to hear your thoughts and top tips on decision-making. 600 strategy helps organisations make big decisions that will allow them to make progress towards their purpose. Contact us for more information.

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