Decision Making

by Krishna on August 19, 2008

There is nothing more puzzling to me about political campaigns than the ever-fluctuating polls. After 18 month of political campaigning, one would think that people would have made up their minds by now. Both the major candidates have significantly differing political views. They have appeared umpteen times on debates on television. All newspapers and blogs do is cover them day after day. If that is not enough, people can go to the campaign web sites to read detailed information about the ideas and proposals of the candidates. So, who are these indecisive people and what are they waiting for?

Such vacillation not only exists in the political world, but also in your workplace and daily life. Some people can take forever to make decisions. This can be the cause of much frustration, especially when the decision makers have to make a judgment on important matters or changes relating to the organization.

Slow decision making can seem like thoughtful decision making and is often justified as such, in contrast with rash decision making. However, slow decision making is not about taking time to do due diligence and understand the pros and cons of the choices. It is about the inability to make a decision even after information about the choices is available.

Why does this happen? I believe that slow decision makers are held hostage by a variety of factors:

  1. The possibility that new information that dramatically contradicts the present information would emerge: The problem here is that the probability of such contradicting information appearing after you have already done your research is generally very low. The question to ask is, “Where, that has not already been researched, could such information realistically come from?” If there is no answer to that, then don’t worry about it. The key is “realistically” — don’t be paralyzed by too much analysis.
  2. The inability to assign necessary weights to the advantages and disadvantages of a particular approach: In every decision, some considerations are more important than others, and the latter can be ignored if required. For example, if the major considerations are functionality, price and size, determine what you value more and be ready to compromise on the rest. The question to ask is, “What is the most important thing to me?
  3. The inability to eliminate choices recursively: Given a choice of A, B and C, this person may be unable to eliminate any choice because they go in a loop where A > B, B > C and C > A. This happens because the comparisons are done based on different criteria. A is better than B on functionality. B > C on price. C > A on size. The better way is to evaluate all of them together on one single criteria (say, functionality) and eliminate the ones which do not meet the bar. If all of them meet your requirement, then evaluate them on the next important criteria (say price). The question to ask is, “Am I using the same criteria to evaluate and eliminate choices?
  4. The fear of making the wrong choice: Wrong decisions could mean embarrassment and loss of money or time. Unfortunately, the reality is that any decision could still lead to a failure because of factors beyond your control. And no one can see the future. So the question is, “What is the best possible decision I can make today based on the available information?” Don’t worry about having the “right judgment” and beat yourself up. If circumstances change, be ready to adapt.
  5. The lack of need in making a quick decision: If it is not urgent enough, people stall decisions. While a crisis can make priorities clearer and make decision making easier, normalcy can encourage procrastination. But such stalling only increases the costs of decision making through unnecessary analysis. Or through missing a good window to start the work and thus reduce the timelines for implementation. The question is not how long you can delay the decision, but rather, “How soon can I get this over and move onto other decisions?

I am not recommending to go to the other extreme and operate with your gut. You must try to gather enough information and have a good sense of your priorities and principles before making a decision. Ironically, the most important thing for making decisions is to accept that you are not infallible and can make bad decisions. If you think you “have to” make good decisions all the time, your ego can fall into the trap of justifying them when things go wrong, instead of trying the fix the situation.

The last thing I would say is learn to accept responsibility for your decisions. Except for instinctive reactions, all decisions are made after thought. Even if the decision was spectacularly stupid in hindsight, at the time, the decision made a lot of sense to you and did not, in fact, feel stupid. It is also very unlikely that you would have made a different decision without the benefit of future knowledge. Once you accept this truth, it is easier to confront the present situation and do something about it.

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