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How to make better decisions

It is estimated that an adult makes about 35,000 remotely conscious decisions each day. Some of these are inconsequential. But others will have a huge bearing on our personal and professional lives.

In the film Sliding Doors, Gwyneth Paltrow’s character would have had a completely different life if she had missed her train. If we multiply the number of life-changing decisions we make – where should I live, should I get married or not, should I change my job and so on – by the number of alternatives for each decision, we end up with something in the region of 10m potential lives.

Given the number of decisions we make, and their potential significance, you might presume we’re good at it. But this is an illusion.

The ability to make good decisions is not inborn. Fifty years of research in the fascinating field of behavioural decision science has demonstrated that we are all subject to many cognitive and motivational traps, which are known as biases.

Don’t just think about the result

At a Guardian Business Made Simple event in Manchester last month, I explained how you need to be aware of three traps in particular. The first is outcome bias. We tend not to draw a distinction between the process of making a decision, and the result. We judge the quality of the decision based on the outcome.

But in a world of uncertainty the only thing we can control is the process.

Consider an archer taking aim at a target with a bow and arrow. The archer has no control over whether the arrow hits the target, but they can control their actions – for example, they can practise, perfect their technique and develop their competitive experience.

Of course, something might distract the archer, a loud noise nearby for example, and they miss. But focusing on the quality of the decision-making process is more likely to lead to a good result.



Dr Valentina Ferretti speaking at the Business Made Simple event, supported by Vodafone. Photograph: Mark Waugh Manchester Press Photography Ltd

Consider the problem from different perspectives

The second biggest trap people can fall into is “narrow framing”, which means only giving a partial answer to the question: “What problem are we trying to solve? Why? Why now?” This is a crucial step in making good decisions. Indeed, Albert Einstein highlighted the importance of framing, and reportedly said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

We all tend to simplify and interpret reality based on our experience, professional training and personal values. We each bring unique perspectives to a problem. But there’s a risk we adopt a narrow definition of the problem and neglect some important features.

For example, human resources specialists may see a problem as an organisational or people issue, while engineers may see the same situation as a systems or technology issue. Avoid the problem of a narrow frame by developing a perspective in collaboration with others. This will enhance your understanding of the decision/ problem/opportunity and help you make sure you are not missing important concerns.

Also, be aware of the “comfort zone” – we sometimes drag a decision that is strategic and complex into a category that we are familiar with, in which we may have solved a problem in the past. We apply the same reasoning and solve the wrong problem.

Make sure you know all your objectives

Finally, make sure you know what your objectives are when you’re making a decision. It has been shown that we often generate about half of the objectives that we later recognise as relevant for our decision. Ask yourself: “How would the ideal solution to this problem look?” This will help you to identify the positive features you would like to achieve. Then ask yourself: “How would a bad solution to this problem look?” This will help you identify the negative features you would like to avoid or minimise.

Find out more about our Business Made Simple event series, supported by Vodafone


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