An ABC of decision-making

Assessment – Balance – Compromise (but not necessarily in that order)

The big supermarkets tell us we want choice, they imply that the more choice we have the happier we’ll be. In reality of course, we get overwhelmed if there are ten brands/ sizes/ prices of tomato ketchup; we want only limited choice. If there’s too much decision-making we don’t make a choice at all and the supermarkets have been late to acknowledge this and are only now cutting back on the range of items on their shelves.

Price is just one element of a buying decision and, even then, it can seem difficult. When faced with just three prices for three brands of a relatively low-cost item with similar specifications – for example an electric kettle – many of us will avoid the highest and lowest prices and go for the mid-priced item. It’s comfortable and we can probably justify our choice as the ‘least-risk’ option (not getting ripped off nor buying a cheap pup). Similarly, when given a survey question asking us to rank an item from say 1 -5, we’ll often choose option 3 because it means we don’t risk criticism or need to give further explanation by expressing a ‘for’ or ‘against’ view. Anything to make life easy.

For decisions more significant than buying a kettle or completing a survey, compromise – taking a middle-of-the-road position can be seen as positive or negative depending on the context. In international negotiations, the resolution of a fiercely contested debate will strive for a consensus that is likely to end in compromise. All sides making concessions is usually necessary if diplomatic relations are not to break down.

In a business context, compromise can be seen negatively – a sign of weakness, the worst of both worlds, the easy way out – with the risk of losing face if applied to a negotiation. We expect our leaders to make firm decisions, after taking soundings from others holding contrary views maybe, but ultimately being decisive seems to be what leadership is all about.

This pressure means that our leaders, including politicians, often develop what Tim Harford brilliantly describes in a TED Talk as ‘the God Complex’. This is the belief that, although undeniably the world is an incredibly complex place, those with the God Complex believe they understand how the world works when, of course neither they nor anyone else, really does. Having identified the God Complex, Tim Harford goes on to advocate that we stop giving school children the idea that all problems have answers, and show instead that most progress in life is achieved through trial and error. A messy but more accurate portrayal of reality.

In my work with young people trying to start their own businesses, I try to instill in them the idea of trial and error – having the confidence to take risks, to fail, but then to reflect, learn and return to the original challenge. But my particular interest in getting away from expecting a direct route to solutions, is my experience of the importance of a b-word – balance.

I invite young entrepreneurs to look at a variety of routes to achieving success, even though it may feel less comfortable than choosing what appears to be a direct route to the next stage in the development of their business. The ‘right way’ is surprisingly often about pursuing more than one route and being prepared to flip from one to another as situations change – balancing alternative solutions.

As the person trying to support the decision-making of others, I’m aware it’s a fine line between helping them make an informed decision and (perhaps subconsciously) steering them in a particular direction. Working with a group, it’s a question of balancing top-down versus bottom-up ideas development, and in moving forward, it can be a matter of finding the balance between the ‘just do it’ and ‘fail to plan and you plan to fail’ approaches. Deciding to be indecisive can be liberating – try it!

Tim Harford’s TED Talk is at:  https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_harford/transcript?language=en

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