Simplifying Tough Choices

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The quality of your life and the prosperity of the organization you lead is entirely dependent on your ability to make good choices. We make hundreds every day. Some may not qualify as important – like right or left? Stop or go? Eat or don’t eat? Some are bigger, even monumental or life-altering, and those are invariably the ones we seek to delay or avoid. The problem is that we really have no option. Because, if we don’t make tough choices, we can’t advance. And avoidance is ultimately counterproductive to that fundamental imperative.

The primary reason for the ambiguity we face in making choices is the fear we could be wrong. No one wants to “look stupid.” Since we can’t impose certainty on unpredictable forces, our future is probably a story of unintended consequences. This, I suggest, is why many adopt the self-defeating rationalization that they should do what is popular and look good rather than do the right thing and be good. The preference then is to do the safe thing and avoid making a difficult choice.

There are, of course, other reasons for avoidance – like not wanting to hurt the feelings of those whom we care about, or disappoint those who act as gatekeepers, or appear to be unreasonable or unfair. Psychologists call this disabling concern “value complexity” – the notion that any choice we make will negatively affect someone. Most often such assumptions prove groundless. Truth always prevails. And the issue in this case isn’t the conclusion reached but how it is communicated.

Failing to address sub-par performance for fear of damaging egos is the same as ignoring efforts given above and beyond the call of duty. Both actions are patently absurd and certainly disrespectful. A failure to acknowledge good work, because you don’t quite know how, only dilutes initiative, productivity and loyalty. Differentiating and openly recognizing high and low levels of performance is a leader’s primary job.

Some, such as Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel laureate widely regarded as the dean of cognitive biases, argue that keeping a decision journal is a good way to improve your ability to make good choices. His rationale is that recording and reviewing what you decide to do can be a reality check on hindsight bias – the tendency to explain to ourselves why what happened wasn’t what we though would happen. I’m not a fan of this strategy because it’s inordinately time consuming and there are better tools for making wiser choices. (I design these kinds of tools to assist my clients in managing their priorities.)

Another method for making smarter choices is to observe those who do, noting how they go about gathering and evaluating needed intelligence, how they structure their process for making sound choices, how they cultivate naysayers, deal with advisors, mavericks and experts, and learn from their failures. All of these behaviours enhance decision making.

So, if you are faced with hard choices and don’t know what to do, here’s my counsel. The time required should be proportional to the importance of the judgement that must be made. Although seemingly counterintuitive, making better decisions faster often requires having more time to think about them. Pertinent details, like consequences, need to marinate. Problem solving begins by accurately defining the essence of the discontent. This usually involves acknowledging that we don’t know as much as we think we do and, hence, are easily fooled into thinking we understand something when we don’t.

Problem definition prizes questions over answers. Avoid generalizations – vague and ambiguous words that sound great but tell you little. The key to understanding the challenge is to use words that are meaningfully specific. Einstein once said he could solve any problem if he knew the right question to ask. So start by asking a lot of questions, such as: What is the source of my discontent? What is relevant or irrelevant? What are the risks, assumptions, costs and consequences? What options, alternatives or ideas might be available? What will happen if I pursue them? What is my confidence level in these possible outcomes? What might this choice look like in a month, a year or three years? What seems logical and what does my gut tell me about this solution?

Ask for input from objective and trusted people who’ve experienced similar choices in past. Good advisors have unique knowledge, can easily explain complex ideas and make themselves expendable. Tell them the essence of your dilemma and share your probable course(s) of action. Then just listen without judgement. You’re not looking for an answer; you’re simply seeking a different point of view, especially when you are considering doing something you’ve never done before.

If you can, dry run the choice you feel has the best potential for success. Practice the precepts of intelligent failure as you go: meaning what might I learn? Examine what you could change and what the repercussions might be. Every choice has a consequence. If it’s a group decision, don’t vote. Provide anonymity and ask for a range of convictions – on a scale from one-to-ten, how do you feel about the choice we are about to make? The world is neither black nor white; shades of grey count.

Then make the first call. Write it out on paper and draw arrows, cross out redundant thoughts and insert new insights as they occur. Visualization is a powerful creative problem solving technique. The brain loves pictures. Use a decision making framework to ensure you’ve covered all relevant issues and concerns. Generate new ideas, alternatives and options without premature evaluation – just list everything that comes to mind. Revisit your compass – its purpose is to eliminate doubt when it comes to values-laden choices.

Lastly, if it’s a consequential choice, build in a mental buffer zone between decision and action, one that allows for further contemplation. Be mindful of your normal approach: a highly intuitive person can impulsively overlook critical facts; a highly analytical individual is overwhelmed and paralysed by too much data. The right blend of information and intuition is the recipe for making good choices. The ultimate arbiter should always be your gut: just ask whether it “feels” right. If it does, go with it.

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