Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A thought about decision making

The best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity.THE SECOND COMINGWilliam Butler Yeats

Of course, the best do not lack all conviction. They are as convinced as you and I of the current color of the sky or of their own identity. I think the best recognize two classes of situations:

  • "Hard Problems" in which either there are no outstandingly suitable solutions, or a great deal of work remains to be done to find such a solution;
  • Crises, in which the full set of options have not yet become visible and/or adequate information is not yet available to select the best option.
In such circumstances, the best decision makers would seldom if ever "bet the bank" on a guess. Lacking conviction is often the best means of coming to a good resolution of a situation that one would categorize as a hard problems or a crisis. Indeed, in such situations the best practice is sometimes:
  • To estimate if some action is required immediately:
    • If so, take a modest action, ideally one that can be retracted if it proves important to do;
    • If not, spend some time and effort gaining more information, identifying more options, considering more incremental steps, and evaluating those steps.
Unfortunately, this (which seems to me the best approach) is often termed "muddling through", a term which to many suggests weakness.

Talking heads on television often seems full of passionate intensity, secure in the knowledge that they have the unique understanding of the issues and recognize the best of all responses to the question at hand. These folk may make for good television, but it seems to me that:
  • TV broadcasters find it relatively easy to find two or more people full of passionate intensity who differ radically on their understanding 
  • If you watch for a few years, you begin to understand that the talking heads are often wrong, that situations are often more complex than they realized, that they lacked key items of information, or that they had failed to think about options that eventually proved important and useful.
I note, following Michael Bohn, that presidents in crisis seem to lack all conviction when they make good decisions in crisis situations, but presidential candidates seem full of passionate intensity when they advocate positions or criticize their opponents. Good decision making seems to benefit from listening to all points of view, being open to new information and new options, and deferring decisions until it is worse to do than to act prudently.

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