How do you make your toughest decisions? Write a pro/con list? Go with your gut? Have your own system that you’ve perfected over the years?
If you don’t have a system that works for you, this article by Steven Johnson in the New York Times has some quality suggestions for improving your decision-making process. Here are some of the main takeaways:
Think Through All of the Alternatives
Often when making a decision, for example, whether to take a new job or not, we think of it as an either/or decision: We’ll take this job, or we’ll stay in the one we have. It’s at the heart of the standard pro/con list. But Johnson’s article stresses the importance of working through more than just these two options.
According to Johnson, a business school professor named Paul Nutt performed research on decision-making over many years. Professor Nutt found that there’s “a strong correlation between the number of alternatives deliberated and the ultimate success of the decision itself.”
In one of his studies, Professor Nutt found that participants who considered only one alternative ultimately judged their decision a failure more than 50 per cent of the time, while decisions that involved contemplating at least two alternatives were felt to be successes two-thirds of the time.
One of the best way to add variety to your option pool is to ask a diverse array of people for their thoughts, writes Johnson. Homogeneity drives groupthink; that’s why studies have shown that companies with diverse boards and/or employee teams often perform better than those composed of the same “type” of person.
They may see things that you do not because they have different experiences and skill sets to pull from to aid your decision-making. Homogenous groups, on the other hand, “don’t question their assumptions.”
Try Scenario Planning
For your most important decisions, rather than making that simple pro/con list mentioned above, try something a bit more involved. Tell yourself three different stories: “Concoct one story where things get better, one where they get worse, and one where they get weird,” suggests Johnson.
So, for example, if you’re thinking of taking a new job, work through three different stories: How would the new job make your life better, how would it make it worse, and what happens if, for example, it makes your life better but your partner’s worse?
Write a “Pre-mortem”
“As the name suggests, the approach is a twist on the medical procedure of post-mortem analysis,” writes Johnson. Rather than a coroner figuring out why you “died” after your death, you’re thinking that through ahead of time. In terms of your decision, this means thinking through different ways ahead of time that it failed. So, to go back to the new job example, explain why you think it would be a failure in a few months’ or years’ time. This can be an enlightening way to think through possible negative consequences.
It isn’t enough to simply ask yourself, ‘Are there any flaws here in this plan that I’m missing?’ By forcing yourself to imagine scenarios where the decision turned out to be a disastrous one, you can think your way around those blind spots and that false sense of confidence.
Create a Better Pro/Con List
If you’re still at an impasse, then try writing a more nuanced pro/con list. Here’s what he suggests:
Write down the values that are most important (for the new job example, that might include freedom, doing work that inspires you, collaborating with smart people, making money, etc.).
Weight each value. Give them “a numerical measure of its importance to you.” For example, something between 1 and 10, or 0 and 1.
Grade each of the scenarios you’ve developed “in terms of how it addresses each of your core values, on a scale of 1 to 100.” For example, your new job might be a remote position, which would score well for your “freedom” value, but score poorly for your “collaboration” value.
Then, “multiply each grade by the weight of each value and add up the numbers for each scenario,” writes Johnson. “The scenario with the highest score wins.”
Ideally, these exercises will help you see and consider new angles for each of your options. Then, you can make a truly informed decision that you won’t come to regret.
How to Make a Big Decision [The New York Times]