Posts Tagged ‘Decision Making Tools’

Some practical advice today, courtesy of Steven Johnson, author of a new book titled “Farsighted,” which explores our human decision making processes, and the biases that often entangle us.  Fortunately, as Johnson finds, there are tools that can aid us in making up our mindsm as David Shaywitz succinctly put it recently in a Wall Street Journal article of Sept. 12, 2018.

One key strategy researchers have found is to systematically widen our thinking to define our options as broadly as possible, “seeking a full-spectrum appraisal of the state of things and a comprehensive list of potential choices.”  Then, winnow down the alternatives by playing out multiple scenarios, exploring what can go wrong.

This is exactly what planners did in 2011 when plotting to capture Osama bin Laden.  The planning was so thorough, so extensive, and considered so many possible options, failure points and contingencies, that it is said that the only item the Seal team neglected to think of was to bring along a ruler to confirm bin Laden’s height after the raid.  President Obama later gave chief planner Gen. William McRaven a tape measure, tongue in check, along with the plaque that commended him for his planning skills.

Decades of research in behavioral sciences show that the human mind is hampered by frequent cognitive biases that often lead us “to misunderstand the past, misconstrue the present and badly foresee the future,” according the Shaywitz.  But as Johnson notes, we shouldn’t despair.  While it may be difficult to rein in our intuition, there are tools than can help improve our decision-making abilities.

Johnson says that when confronted with real-life problems or choices, we tend to frame them in a narrow fashion.  Instead, he suggests, we should engage in an expansive mapping exercise, with participation from the broadest and most diverse group we can arrange.  Fringe ideas are welcome, as are suggestions that would not otherwise occur to those following the party line.  (The M.I.T. Media Lab makes a specialty of just this kind of thinking, but that’s an article perhaps for another day.)

But viewpoint diversity alone isn’t enough.  Groups often focus on “shared” information, so it’s important to design a process that exposes “unshared information” too, according to legal scholar Cass Sunstein.  Meet individually with decision stakeholders to get outlier input.  Also, notes Sunstein, most organizations don’t contemplate more than a single option when deciding.  There is a natural tendency he notes to move to a single framing of a decision.  To resist it, he suggests “considering what might be done if the presumptive path forward were suddenly blocked.”  (Much like, it’s assumed the bin Laden team must have done.)

Among Johnson’s additional strategies for predicting outcomes with precision: scenario planning, where you systematically explore different future versions and simulations — like commandos practicing a raid, or weather forecasters using math models.  Uncertainty cannot be fully winnowed out of any complex system, but scenarios and simulations can help you better prepare for unexpected surprises.

When it’s decision time, you can weigh the relative importance of different goals, or take a bad-outcome approach that examines worst-case scenarios.  But once all the information and data capturing are on the table, one approach may be an instinctive one after all: “Give your mind the free time to mull it over.  Go for long walks, linger in the shower longer, and let your mind wander.”

Fundamentally, Johnson notes, “choices concern competing narratives, and we’re lively to make better choices if we have richer stories, with more fleshed-out characters, a more nuanced understanding of motives and a deeper appreciation of how decisions are likely to reverberate and resound.”


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