The Best we Can
by Peter DeJager
Here's a well kept little secret. No matter how hard we try, no matter how many resources we deploy, no matter how deep we search, we will never have all of the information necessary to make perfect decisions. At some point in the process, long before we have all the facts, we will have to decide a course of action. There is no possible way to guarantee the outcome of a decision made without all the facts.
Now, this revelation will either drive us insane, or it will offer us some small amount of comfort depending on how much ambiguity we're willing to tolerate in life. Regardless of our tolerance level, not knowing everything for certain is something we have to live with, because there's no way to avoid it.
To clarify this issue of 'ambiguity' just a little bit, I'll use an example a bit removed from complicated real world problems and look at the game of chess.
Any decision making process starts with some simple definitions relating to problem statements, objectives, and resources available. What is the objective when playing a game of chess? The accepted right answer to this is 'To checkmate the King of your opponent while obeying all the rules of the game'. This is certainly the objective as stated in any book on chess, but is it always the objective? Is this why we play a game of chess? Or do play in order to accomplish things like having fun, learning, teaching, enjoying the experience etc. etc. factor into our answer when asked, "Why do we play chess?"
If the objective is to have fun, and if losing 10,001 games in a row isn't fun, then we should never play chess with a Grand Master. We should play with people closer to our skill level. If the answer is to learn, then who better to play than that Grand Master?
What has this got to do with lack of information in the decision making process? Everything, because the biggest mistake in any decision making process is to assume that our definition, or for that matter anyone's definition of a problem is automatically the right one. Determining the most appropriate problem definition is the first step towards deciding what to do, to fix the problem.
Let's use a real world example. Bill has been arriving late to work every day for the past two weeks. You've spoken to him about this, and explained how his behaviour is adversely affecting the operation of your department. But your polite and reasoned conversation doesn't appear to have had any positive effect.
Take a few minutes and write down a description of the problem you're facing in this situation. Most readers would describe pretty much what I described above, and even wonder why I'm asking such a silly question. That's where we make our first big mistake in decision making... trusting that the description of the problem as presented, is accurate.
In this situation, where the problem is described in an article, there is no way to interrogate the writer. In real life, we can dig deeper to find out what is really the problem. In this hypothetical situation there could be any number of reasons why Bill is arriving late.
His car is broken and he's taking the earliest possible bus to get to work.
His wife is ill, and he has to take his children to school.
He's ill, and doing his very best to avoid staying away from work
but his illness is making it very difficult for him to arrive on time. etc. etc.
The thing to realize is that another person's problem definition is often very different from our own and yet both definitions could be totally accurate when looked at from the different perspectives.
There's more to this issue than potentially differing viewpoints of a problem. Sometimes we just don't have access to a crucial bit of information, but need to come to a decision anyway. Will our currency exchange rate against the Euro and Dollar go up or down next year? Will oil prices go up or down? Will they accept that offer? Will constituents demand that service from us tomorrow? We'll never have that information no matter how many experts we speak to and no matter how much analysis we do.
Regardless of how much that information is necessary to make a good decision, it is beyond our reach. Yet, we must still choose a course of action. We cannot choose not to act, that is itself a course of action.
If we just flip a coin to decide what to do, making no attempt to get information that might have changed our thought process, then we're a bad decision maker, regardless of the outcome.
On the other hand, if we study past patterns with respect to a particular issue and determine that there is a slight chance that one alternative is better than another and choose that one, then we're making a 'good' decision, even if the final result is failure.
A 'good decision' is not necessarily defined by the outcome, but by how much diligent effort went into making it. Did we attempt to get all the desired information? Were we even aware that a particular piece of information would have been useful? Did we question our own assumptions? Were we even aware we were making assumptions? These are the indicators of a good decision making process – even when the final result is failure.
(c) 2004 Peter de Jager - Peter is a Keynote Speaker, writer and consultant focusing on issues relating to Change Management and the Future. All Rights Reserved.
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