Friday, November 30, 2007

Decision Making

A few years back I wrote the following piece for a magazine which never paid me. It went bust after two issues. I found the piece this morning whilst looking for something else. I think it still reads reasonably well and has a few useful ideas in it. It's a long post this so come back to it if you don't have ten minutes.

I hope this makes up for my lack of creativity recently.

We had a vacancy in our office. The job had generated lots of interest, many applications and a good short-list of people we wanted to meet. The interviews, just completed, had gone well. We were now sitting round a table trying to decide who to appoint. We had a number of good candidates for the job. If we had been desperate we could probably have appointed any of them, although some would have been more of a risk than others.

We talked round a bit and decided against Judy, Bill and Ian, paring our short-list down shorter. Impasse. We couldn’t separate Trevor and Janice. They were evenly matched - different, but bringing specific expertise to the interviews and simply offering to do the job in their own way.

We took a break and walked around a bit. Returning, someone suggested it would focus our minds if we looked at the weaknesses which had led us not to appoint Judy, Bill and Ian. This was helpful. It also enabled us to offer a little more constructive criticism to the unsuccessful when writing.

We revisited the outstanding applications. Two of the panel had changed sides. Sadly they’d merely swapped so we were still balanced. Eventually we reached a point where all but two of the panel of six had agreed that Janice was the preferable candidate. One of the two still couldn’t separate Trevor and Janice; the other felt strongly that everyone else was wrong and Trevor should be appointed. He was accused of sexism, but then defended by another interviewer who felt his record in that area was beyond reproach. A woman on the panel helpfully admitted that her decision for Janice was not without gender bias. ‘You just can’t divorce yourself from things like that,’ she said.

We agreed that a gender-balanced interview panel gave us a balanced process. After another half an hour of talking, Trevor’s champion, somewhat back-against-the-wall, agreed that Janice was an able candidate, he couldn’t see that he could turn the panel round to his way of thinking so he would go along with a majority decision. A statement could be issued that the panel had unanimously agreed to offer Janice the job. (They hadn’t unanimously agreed that she was the best candidate but they had made a decision they were unanimous about.)

OK. Discussion time. How well did the panel do? You have five minutes and I’ll expect you back with your answers after making yourself a coffee.

Time’s up. Now to some extent the proof of the pudding is in the gut-wrenching stomach-ache caused by undercooked dough. I mean the process is great if it works and Janice does her job well. If she doesn’t we’ll always have our suspicions that we should have gone with Trevor. But did we do well in our decision-making? I think we did. We allowed all the candidates to be heard and we weighed up their relative merits. We listened to every member of the panel express a view and we came to the only decision that panel could have come to. It would have been folly to re-advertise just because we couldn’t separate two strong candidates.

I hope you either agree, or work for a recruitment consultancy who will soon be pitching for my company’s business. We can’t afford you; go away.

Throughout our lives we are faced with decisions. Check out this lot, all in the early part of a day for me back in January, with some of the things to be taken into account in brackets afterwards.

The last decision of the previous night. What time to get up in order to be in Chesham for 9.00a.m? (Need weather forecast for journey time.)
Breakfast or not? (Not feeling like food early in the morning but know it will help the day go better.)
Which after shave? (Very personal.)
What to wear for a training day classed as, ‘informal’? (Need to be ‘alongside’ the delegates but not to appear scruffy.)
My car, or my colleague’s? (Mine just serviced, his not. Mine tidy; his not. But who needs the miles?)
Which of two available rooms shall we use? (We expect twenty delegates. One room is too big; the other a bit of a squeeze.)
How to set out that room for twenty guests? (Lecture model or chairs in a big circle for a seminar?)

I can tell you’re bored. The decisions of my daily life are of no interest to you, yet we are all faced with seemingly small decisions which may have life-changing consequences. If I misjudge the weather, the journey time and I am late it may reflect badly on my company. We may lose business. Do it more than once and my job may be under threat.

If you’ve never read Tom Wolfe’s, The Bonfire of the Vanities (Picador 1988) then try to. It’s long, but a page-turner. Sherman McCoy, wealthy Wall Street bond-trader, makes a series of wrong decisions one evening and his whole life unravels. The results are rather more serious than my being late for an appointment but stand as a metaphor for the knife-edge on which many of us live our lives if we make a wrong call. Nick Leeson played double-or-quits once too often. The movie Crimson Tide pairs two submariners with different attitudes to decision making and authority. Gene Hackman (the Captain) and Denzil Washington (the Executive Officer) fall out over the appropriateness, of all things, of launching nuclear missiles. Cricket matches often seem to depend very much on the toss of a coin on the first morning. Decisions, decisions, decisions.

For philosophers such as Sartre, decision-making was straight-forward, ‘To choose to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose, because we can never choose evil. We always choose the good…’ (Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism). The right decision is the one you took, regardless of its consequences. Tell that to McCoy and Leeson.

What decisions are bothering you? For some it will be about what to wear for the party. Others (surgeons, air traffic controllers) may have people’s lives in their hands every day. We rely on them making good decisions. I don’t want to pretend I have any wisdom to offer on matters to do with your work. When did you last hear someone say, ‘Let me through, I’m a writer.’ I couldn’t tell you when to make that incision or land that aircraft. I want to think about decisions that go into the realms of ‘guidance’. Should I take that new job despite the upheaval of the house move? Should I settle down with my girlfriend? How do we avoid standing transfixed by the oncoming information and ending up mown down by indecision? Well we don't, because we aren’t rabbits and those aren’t car headlights, but you get the point.

Here’s some stuff you can do which may help:

To generate a decision:

• Lists. Make a list of the pros and cons of each decision. If I decide to change jobs what would be good, what would be bad? If I decide not to, again what would be good and what would be bad. You need all four columns. The list of what would be good if you did may not be the same as the list of things that would be bad if you didn’t. Each of the four questions gives you a slightly different angle on the subject.

You could then decide by counting up pluses and minuses, although I would suggest weighting them somehow. ‘My wife would kill me,’ has a little more weight than, ‘It’s nearer for Chelsea’s home games’. Yes it does.

• Imagine you have taken a decision. Work through, in your mind, how your new life looks. Your girlfriend has accepted the invitation to move in. Your independence is compromised. How does that feel? You now wake up next to her every day. Feeling better?

• Ponder, meditate, pray. Allow the problem/opportunity to sit in the back of your mind while you let it wander. Often, in this state, thoughts and ideas will come to you which you would otherwise have missed. Those who seek divine intervention will not feel comfortable until they feel they have received it. If you have a more intuitive approach to decision-making - you just know but can’t say how – be prepared to show at least some of your working. You may have to convince some non-intuitives that you are right.

• Toss a coin. Don’t follow the coin blindly. Ask yourself how you feel about the decision random chance has just thrown at you. Is the problem so evenly balanced you, almost literally, could solve it by tossing a coin, or would one of the two outcomes feel wrong?

• Analyse your motives. None of us make decisions out of some core of motivational purity. In the main we balance what would be right for others with what would be right for ourselves. When we get out of balance we can either appear selfish (always trying to please ourselves) or servile (always trying to please others).

If you are unaware of the things that affect your motives have a look at a book such as Why Did I Do That? (George New and David Cormack, Hodder 1997). By the end of it you will have a much better idea of what goes into the melting pot that is your decisiveness.

Of course once you have made your decision it does not mean things will go your way. The decision to apply for a job is not the same as the decision to take it. I would suggest that nobody should waste a prospective employer’s time by applying for a job they have no intention of taking, but an interview is a chance to explore a potential decision. Before going for the job, ask yourself the same questions as you would if offered it. Do I want to? Can I afford to? What about the others involved (friends, family)? How would they take it?

It is this form of pre-decision making which most people overlook. The decision to buy a lottery ticket is actually the decision to take responsibility for seven million pounds if you hit the jackpot. Could you hack it? If not, don’t buy.

If you can’t afford a new flat-screen television and DVD player what are you doing in the electrical showroom with a credit card. If you can’t avoid spending money you don’t have why did you decide to have a credit card? Cut it in half. Now. Are those your car keys on the pub table? Then why have you decided to stay for a second pint?

Most big decisions started with a small decision
Most people spend too much time thinking about detail
99% of the decisions you take are of no consequence

As a start in your determination to make better decisions, look at everything you decide to do over a period of say, two hours. Take a moment or two to consider what this decision will, or may, lead to. Is it a stand-alone, small decision or the start of a big one?

Take some time to think about strategy. Where is your life going? How will you get there? Are you spending too long on detail? I was amazed the other day to listen to a couple of friends vociferously discussing a new colour scheme in their lounge when, not half an hour earlier, they told me they had virtually decided to move house. The deck chairs on the Titanic can stay right where they are during a matter of greater importance.

Most daily decisions are meaningless to others. Tea or coffee? Bath or shower? Blue suit or grey? The skill of advanced decision makers is to know which of the one in a hundred will have greater consequences. I’ve decided to finish there.


Mike Peatman said...

Were you going for a record on length, Steve?

I'll use up the rest of my luch break reading this!


I couldn't decide whether to read it all or not... :-)