Modern Day Decision Making
Let’s jump right into a little thought experiment. Imagine you’ve got a few hours in your day to sit down and watch a little television. What are you going to watch? Or - more to the point of where we’re headed with this piece - how are you going to decide what to watch?
I was reading something the other day that really got me thinking. I picked up the book because the subtitle mentioned something about reducing anxiety and stress. I don’t know about you, but I can always use a few more tools to deal with those little buggers!
A few pages in, this is what made me stop and ponder…
“The progression into an information era with easy access to endless streams of knowledge has changed how people think, feel and make choices. It’s almost as if we’ve entered an era where we’ve sacrificed the processing of knowledge for the gathering of data. We are, without realizing it, training ourselves not to process but immediately jump to a quick solution and reactive opinion… When our knowledge isn’t being effectively applied, just consumed, our minds become nutritionally starved and can’t get from point A to point B.” (Dr. Caroline Leaf, in her book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess)
Now, back to our thought experiment. I’m going to assume most of you reading this are younger than myself (that’s my way of being polite to many of you), so I’ll just explain the process that took place when I was a youngster. There were at most just a couple of steps. First, you might pull out the (then) ubiquitous TV-Guide, which had all the shows that were on at any given time during the week. Within a matter of seconds, you would be aware of all your options. Where I grew up, that included all eight of them. Yes, EIGHT of them. (And we were fortunate to have so many (!) because we lived close to New York City!) Then, depending on the weather, you may have to eliminate some of your options if the reception from your VHF antenna was not up to par. So, all together, we’re looking at two, three minutes tops, to make your viewing decision.
Fast forward to today. What does that “pre-watch” process look like? Generally, step one, you pick up the remote. (Yeah, back in the day we didn't have one of those. The remote - clicker - was typically the youngest child in the room, which seemed always to be me.) Step two begins with starting to scroll through the options. And continue to scroll. And scroll. Then, if you don’t find anything on cable, or your main streaming service, you click over to a different streaming service. And scroll some more. Quick question - Have you ever thought about the number of hours you’ve spent just scrolling through options? Not even watching a show, but just scrolling!
I believe this is a great example of what Dr. Leaf was getting at with her words we quoted above.
We keep seeking more data - what else is on? Maybe we read the plot synopsis or watch the trailer. Then maybe the reviews. And then we scroll some more, “What else is on? What else could we watch?” We are, “gathering information without processing or applying it…” (Dr. Leaf) We just keep gathering and wanting more information, and because so much is available, we never commit! As Dr. Leaf proceeds to discuss in her book, it all has a negative effect on our mental health.
I remember being presented with a similar sentiment, admittedly without the neuroscience backing, over 40 years ago, from one Gordon Sumner (aka Sting.)
Too much information, running through my brain
Too much information, driving me insane.
I would also submit that this same process and mentality of continuously gathering data without committing to a decision that is instructed to said data, has a negative effect on our businesses. We seek and gather and consume information, but it can all lead to the tendency of not resulting in any action. “Let me just find that last kernel of evidence before I…” And nothing happens.
“Okay”, you’re saying, “so what do we do about it?”
As we deal with this world of constant information and endless data at our fingertips, I’d like to propose a few guidelines, you might even call them boundaries, for navigating what I’d call the data collection or investigative process, prior to making a decision.
1. Ask yourself, “What is the decision I need to make?” Be crystal clear. Define it explicitly. Ambiguity at this point will just lead to more ambiguity later in the process.
2. Ask yourself, “Do I already have all the information I need?” It’s possible that all the information is already in your hands, you just need to process it.
3. Before pursuing a path - ask yourself, “How will this road I’m headed down inform the decision?” Otherwise, you’ll be going down more rabbit trails than decision paths.
4. If you believe you already have the information you need, create some time limits and boundaries for the amount of time to spent pursuing a direction. For example, if you’re three hours in and you’re no closer to anything that may help you make your decision, you may have just wasted 2 ½ hours of your life. (Of course, differing types of decisions will require different time frames. Think this through before each decision that must be made. The more that is at stake, the longer the time frame.)
5. If you do not have what you need, and additional information and investigation is required, determine who the best person, or the best company/partner, would be to help you acquire it. Are there trusted partners you can depend on? Have they helped you make good decisions in the past? Does this decision require some specific type of expertise?
6. Ask yourself, “How much information and data is enough?” Will I ever have enough information to make the decision an easy one? Most decisions are not black and white. The world can be very gray. How sure do you have to be to make the call? Or to be confident in just maintaining the status quo? Similar to point #4, the answer here will depend on what’s ultimately at stake.
7. When you determine you have all the information and data you need, make the decision! How many times have you gone through some variation of the above steps, and then never made the call? For whatever reason, your ultimate decision was one of abdication and not of resolve.
I’m reminded here of something I heard on one of my favorite leadership podcasts a few months ago. Craig Groeschel was discussing how to determine when something is “finished”. Developing a product, writing a book, or anything else that might include multiple drafts or iterations. How do you know when it’s done? Groeschel offers up the idea of GETMO – Good Enough To Move On. It’s a way of acknowledging that you eventually get to a point of diminishing returns. Where the time and resources already invested – or in our discussion, the amount of data accumulated – is sufficient to make the best decision possible. Perfection is unattainable, so quit waiting until you achieve the perfect amount of information to make that call.
I think it’s very important for us to recognize the toll that the data collection and information seeking process can take on us. Not just personally, but as organizations. We all want to be more efficient. But we also all want to make the best decisions possible. Unfortunately, never-ending decision-making processes are not very efficient. It is my hope that by shedding some light on the issue, and providing some guidelines to help you think through and navigate it, will help you not only be a more efficient decision maker, but a more effective and successful one - as well.