How to make better decisions
If you think we’re highly evolved beings with the capacity to think clearly and make careful decisions based on reason – think again. Science believes our decisions are often shaped by over-simplification, prejudice, our surroundings, and just plain laziness.
Our minds are easily subverted by images, and even by our own desires. That’s why we tend to avoid visits to the beach after watching sharks on TV, and why we believe we might win the lottery, though the odds are stacked against us. Indeed, we often only see what we want to see or recognise data that supports what we already think.
So, are we doomed to blunder through life led only by our irrational minds? Fortunately, help is at hand with the following useful tips.
The importance of defining your purpose
Clearly define in your own mind what you’re trying to achieve and, if it’s to be a group-based decision, involve the right colleagues – probably about five to seven people, including all key stakeholders.
Always present the idea or problem in the form of a question which helps identify the goal. For example, instead of stating, “Advantages to launching new product X next year,” ask, “When would be the best time to launch product X?” Be really clear in your own mind: what exactly is the problem you want to solve; and what benefits will solving the problem bring to your business? What will happen if you don’t solve the problem? By identifying the problem in this way, you’ll open up your mind to all sorts of alternative solutions.
The worst way to make a decision is in a hurry. Take your time. Choose a relaxed, informal environment in which to hold your meeting, provide refreshments and allow time for several breaks for coffee.
Brainstorming is ideal for gathering ideas from a group of people; it helps us break out of stale, established patterns of thinking. The idea is to generate as many ideas as possible and encourage everyone to take part, sparking ideas and connections and opening up possibilities – even if they seem crazy! The more options you consider, the more comprehensive your final decision will be. There shouldn’t be any criticism or judgement at this stage; evaluation comes later. It is, however, important that one person in the group should record all the ideas that are generated in the meeting.
Of course, you can also brainstorm on your own: just allow yourself half an hour of absolute freedom to explore all your creativity and experience. However, the obvious disadvantage to this is that you will be limited by your patterns of thinking and, yes, your prejudice; this is why a decision made on your own is always going to be more limited in scope than one made in a group.
Once the ideas have been generated, it’s time to evaluate them, considering the possible consequences of each and assessing the pros and cons. Many of us are trained to think that in order to be successful we have to think positively – all the time – and this can mean that we’re under-prepared when problems arise. A useful technique is therefore to consider each problem from different perspectives: first, focussing strictly and analytically on the data available, looking at and learning from past trends; next, using your intuition, or gut feeling, and your emotions; and finally, pessimistically, imagining “the worst scenario”, which will highlight the weak points in your plan.
Look again at the question you presented when you were defining your purpose: have you looked at it from all possible angles? Can you identify how your business would benefit from each of the alternative solutions to the problem?
In the end, you can never know 100% whether or not you’re making the “right” decision. Only time will tell. But once you’ve decided, concentrate on implementing it in a way that makes it successful – and try not to have doubts!