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17 January 2019
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The obscure art of decision making

5 August 2013

This week I wrote about planning; you can read that soon, but in doing so I covered the art of decision making and that is what this week’s Monday Musing is all about.

You’ll know the old joke: “I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not sure”. Decision making is easy, so why do we make such a meal of it?

The main reason is that we are afraid of being wrong.

Even in the simplest decision there is an element of risk and we would rather procrastinate than take a chance. Last night after dinner the Berkshire Belle and I were discussing the weekend shopping and decided that we would leave buying the household basics until Sunday. So far so good, but then came the problem; we have Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda all within about a 15 minute drive, but which one should we go to? Thirty minutes later no decision had been made and, with the last of a bottle of wine poured, we decided that our decision making ability was sufficiently impaired to leave it for Sunday morning. We’ll see where the car takes us.

That example is a fairly low level domestic decision and its outcome is really fairly unimportant, but the key to not being able to make our minds up is the same issue that often affects business decisions. We couldn’t decide because we weren’t sure who would have what in stock. Simply put, we didn’t have the information at our fingertips.

Decision making is something that I teach, and people often challenge the principle of being able to learn how to make decisions, but it really is pretty easy as I learned in the days when I was programming computers. There you boil everything down to binary; 0 or 1, something is true or false, in electronic terms, on or off. It doesn’t matter how complex the issue, you design your software to break the problem down to a series of yes or no answers and the computer will execute that sequence very quickly. So if you can teach an inert piece of equipment to make decisions, you can certainly teach humans.

Not only can decision making be learned, but so can the process of improving your decision making as you go along. Once you get the hang of the basic principles the fear of being wrong begins to recede, getting further behind you as your confidence grows.

By the time you read this we’ll have done our Sunday shopping run, so a decision will have been made. The car won’t really decide where to take us; the most dangerous component of the car will (the nut behind the wheel), and how will he decide? Almost certainly on the basis of which one can we get round and out of again before the great hoards of the locality turn up and swamp the place like a plague of locusts.

Will I make the right decision? In this case it doesn’t matter; all we need to do is choose, and that is really all there is to decision making.

John Bowen is an FM consultant