Struggle with Decisions? Go Wider…

We make decisions all the time –ranging from what to eat for lunch to strategic career decisions to how to manage relationships and life partners.  And although we’ve all had a lot of practice at it, it turns out that collectively we aren’t very good at it.

Consider the following (from the book Decisive by Chip Heath and Dan Heath):

  • 44% of lawyers would recommend that a young person not pursue a career in law
  • More than half of teachers quit their jobs within 4 years
  • 83% of corporate mergers failed to create any value for shareholders
  • 60% of executives reported that bad decisions were about as frequent as good ones
  • It’s estimated that half (or more) of all marriages will end in divorce
  • Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton finally found true love the 2nd time around – and divorced after 10 months…
  • An estimated 61,535 tattoos were removed in the US in 2009

A big part of the problem is that we lack a real process for making decisions. Benjamin Franklin recommended thinking through a list of Pros and Cons over a period of a couple of days to a colleague looking for guidance – but that was in 1772 and we’ve since learned that the Pros and Cons approach doesn’t really work very well.


Narrow Framing

One of the reasons we tend to struggle is that often we unconsciously get locked into simple black and white choices…should I do this or not?  Only having 1 or even 2 options to consider is a big red flag that your framing is too narrow.

Research shows that 65% of decisions made by teenagers are either statements of resolve (“I’m going to stop blaming others”) or whether-or-not decisions (decisions that only look at 1 alternative– “Should I go to the dance…or not?”). That’s a lot of decisions that are made with very narrow frames.

But it’s not just teenagers who are too narrow. In the business world, an extensive study was done by Paul Nutt from Ohio State University which looked at 168 business decisions in extreme detail (these were bigger decisions, like rolling out new programs, changing systems, etc.). In that study, only 29% of teams looked at more than one alternative for their decision! And there were consequences – the whether-or-not decisions failed 52% over the long term vs. 32% failure rate for the decisions that looked at more than one alternative.


Try Reframing the question

Heidi Price founded CollegeMatch in 2003 here in Kansas City because she was frustrated with the process of finding the right college for her daughter. U.S. News and World Report rank the ‘best’ colleges every year and is generally considered to be the starting point for a college search. However the report is generated based on a lot of factors that most college students and parents don’t even care about (faculty compensation, alumni donations, etc.).

According to Price, the question when you’re looking shouldn’t be “What’s the highest ranking college I can convince to take me?” The better question is “What do I want out of life, and what are the best options to get me there?” You can see how your perspective and options might change with that kind of reframing approach.


Other ways to Widen Your Options:

  1. Include the opportunity cost…what else could you do with those resources if you chose not to make that decision (i.e. buy a less expensive stereo and more music vs. a more expensive stereo).
  2. Run a vanishing options test – Assume that you cannot choose any current options. What else could you do?
  3. Try multi-tracking…think AND not OR…purposely move forward with more than 1 option. The goal would be to add 1 or 2 more options (example – go with 3 designs simultaneously on a new logo)
  4. Use both a prevention and promotion mindset (defense and offense) when coming up with possible options to consider – it’s easy to just get locked into one or the other.
  5. Find someone who’s already solved your problem – did they explore options you haven’t considered?
  6. Try ‘laddering up’ –start by looking locally for a bright spot solution, then look close by at competitors or similar situations and then finally look big picture into the distance.


Example of Laddering Up:

Fiona Fairhurst is a swimsuit designer and in 1997 she was charged by Speedo to come up with a new, faster swimsuit design. She considered existing swimsuit designs, then she looked at man-made water craft that were fast…then water animals that were fast.

It was during her 3rd ladder that she discovered some interesting properties in shark skin – it’s very rough, with micro grooves that channel the water in a very specific way.By copying that sharkskin design and incorporating ideas from a torpedo (man-made inspiration) they created a suit that covered most of the swimmer –resulting in much faster times…to the extent that the suits were eventually banned from Olympic competition.

How about you? Do  you ever feel like you’re locked into a lack of options?  Do you just go ahead and make your decision anyway? Or do you take some time and look into widening those options?  We’d love to hear your thoughts – share them in the comments below.

Shawn Kinkade   Kansas City Business Coach