Some useful advice from Ed Batista about the difference between ‘good decision-making’ and ‘making the right decision’.
I believe the path to getting unstuck when faced with a daunting, possibly paralyzing decision… involves a fundamental re-orientation of our mindset: Focusing on the choice minimizes the effort that will inevitably be required to make any option succeed and diminishes our sense of agency and ownership. In contrast, focusing on the effort that will be required after our decision not only helps us see the means by which any choice might succeed, it also restores our sense of agency and reminds us that while randomness plays a role in every outcome, our locus of control resides in our day-to-day activities more than in our one-time decisions.
So while I support using available data to rank our options in some rough sense, ultimately we’re best served by avoiding paralysis-by-analysis and moving forward by:
paying close attention to the feelings and emotions that accompany the decision we’re facing,
assessing how motivated we are to work toward the success of any given option, and
recognizing that no matter what option we choose, our efforts to support its success will be more important than the initial guesswork that led to our choice.
This view is consistent with the work of Stanford professor Baba Shiv, an expert in the neuroscience of decision-making. Shiv notes that in the case of complex decisions, rational analysis will get us closer to a decision but won’t result in a definitive choice because our options involve trading one set of appealing outcomes for another, and the complexity of each scenario makes it impossible to determine in advance which outcome will be optimal.
I remember reading that Barack Obama only had two colours of suits while President of the USA, because making lots of small decisions inhibited his ability to make larger/more important ones.
Decision fatigue impacts our ability to choose between several options, causes us to make impulse purchases, and can even lead us to avoid decisions entirely:
Impaired ability to make trade-offs. Trade-offs feature several choices that have positive and negative elements. They are a particularly energy-consuming form of decision making. When we are faced with too many trade-offs to consider, we end up mentally depleted, and we make poor choices.
Impulse purchases. When shopping, decisions regarding prices and promotions can produce decision fatigue, depleting our willpower to impulse purchases. This is why snacks are usually displayed near the cash register: by the time they get there, many shoppers have decision fatigue and may grab an item they hadn’t initially intended on buying.
Decision avoidance. Sometimes, our mental energy is so depleted, we completely avoid making a choice. We may as well try to bypass the mental and emotional costs of decision making by selecting the default option when one is available.
Interestingly, poorer people are more prone to decision fatigue. “If a trip to the supermarket induces more decision fatigue in the poor than in the rich — because each purchase requires more mental trade-offs — by the time they reach the cash register, they’ll have less willpower left to resist the Mars bars and Skittles. Not for nothing are these items called impulse purchases,” explains Dean Spears from Princeton University.
I think I must have come across the above saying from Hsing Yun via Mayel de Borniol. It captures some of what I want to discuss in this article which centres around decision-making within organisations.
Let’s start with a great article from Roman Imankulov from Doist. He looks to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)’s approach, as enshrined in a document from 2014, explaining their ‘rough consensus’ approach:
Rough consensus isn’t majority rule. It’s okay to go ahead with a solution that may not look like the best choice for everyone or even the majority. “Not the best choice” means that you believe there is a better way to solve the problem, but you accept that this one will work too. That type of feedback should be welcomed, but it shouldn’t be allowed to slow down a decision.
If they try hard enough, everyone can come up with a reason why an idea or approach won’t work. My experience is that many middle-aged white men see it as their sworn duty to come up with as many of those reasons as possible 🙄
What the IETF calls ‘rough consensus’ I think I’d probably call ‘alignment’. You don’t all have to agree that a proposal is without problems, but those problems should be surmountable. Within CoTech, a network of co-operatives to which We Are Open belongs, we use Loomio. It has a number of decision tools, including the ‘proposal’:
As you can see, there’s the ability for anyone to ‘Block’ a proposal, meaning that it can’t be passed in its current form. People can ‘Abstain’ if there’s a conflict of interest, or if they don’t feel like they’ve got enough experience or expertise. Note that it’s entirely possible for someone to ‘Disagree’ and the motion to still go ahead.
What I like about Loomio is a tool is that it focuses on decision-making. It’s not about endless discussion and debate, but about having a bias towards action. You can separate the planning process from the implementation stage:
Rough consensus doesn’t mean that we don’t aim for perfection in the actual implementation of the solution. When implementing, we should always aim for technical excellence. Commitment to the implementation is often what makes a solution the right one. (This is similar to Amazon’s “disagree and commitment” philosophy.)
I can’t, by my nature, stand hierarchy. Unfortunately, it’s the default operating system of most organisations, and despite our best efforts, we haven’t got a one-size-fits-all alternative to it. I think this is partly because nobody has to teach you how hierarchy works.
Sociocracy, also known as dynamic governance, is a system of governance which seeks to achieve solutions that create harmonious social environments as well as productive organizations and businesses. It is distinguished by the use of consent rather than majority voting in decision-making, and decision-making after discussion by people who know each other.
We decided to remove the ‘decider’ role that a Google Sprint employs. We weren’t comfortable with the responsibility and authority of decisions sitting with one person, and having spent a few years practising sociocracy already, it just wouldn’t have felt right.
Martin, Moodle’s CEO and founder joined us for the duration of the sprint. While Martin naturally had the most expertise in the domain, the most ‘skin in the game’ and the had done the most background thinking sociocracy meant that he still needed to convince the rest of the sprint team as to why his ideas were best, and take on board other suggestions and compromises. We feel that it led to better outputs at each stage of the design sprint.
It was the first time I’d seen a CEO give up their hierarchical power in the interests of ensuring that we designed something that could be the best it could possibly be. In fact, that week last May is probably one of the highlights of my career to date.
That was one week into which was poured a lot of time, attention, and money. But what if you want to practise something like sociocracy on a day-to-day basis? You have to think about structure of organisations, as there’s no such thing as ‘structureless’ group:
Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness — and that is not the nature of a human group.
It’s only within the last year that I’ve discovered left-libertarianism as a coherent political and social philosophy that helps me reconcile two things that I’ve previously found difficult. On the one hand, I believe in a small state. On the other, I believe we have a duty to one another and should help out wherever possible.
Left-libertarianism, also known as left-wing libertarianism, names several related yet distinct approaches to political and social theory which stress both individual freedom and social equality. In its classical usage, left-libertarianism is a synonym for anti-authoritarian varieties of left-wing politics such as libertarian socialism which includes anarchism and libertarian Marxism among others.
While maintaining full respect for personal property, left-libertarians are skeptical of or fully against private ownership of natural resources, arguing in contrast to right-libertarians that neither claiming nor mixing one’s labor with natural resources is enough to generate full private property rights and maintain that natural resources (raw land, oil, gold, the electromagnetic spectrum, air-space and so on) should be held in an egalitarian manner, either unowned or owned collectively. Those left-libertarians who support private property do so under occupation and use property norms or under the condition that recompense is offered to the local or even global community.
In other words, you don’t have to be a Marxist, communist, or anarchist to be a left-libertarian. It means you can start from a basis of personal autonomy, but end with an egalitarian approach to the world where resources (especially natural resources) are collectively owned.
To me, this is the position from which we should start when we think about decision-making within organisations. First of all, we should ask: who owns the organisation? Why? Second, we should consider how the organisation should be structured. Ten layers of management might be bad, but so is a completely flat structure for 700 people. And finally, we should think about appropriate mechanisms for decision-making.
The usual criticisms of sociocracy and other consent-based decision-making systems is that they are too slow, that they don’t work in practice. In my experience, by participating in the Outlandish/Moodle design sprint, witnessing a Mozilla Festival session in which participants quickly got up-to-speed on sociocracy, and through CoTech gatherings (both online and offline), I’d say sociocracy is a viable solution.
The best decisions aren’t ones where you have all of the information to hand. That’s impossible. The best decisions are based on trust and consent.
As I get older, I’m realising that the best way we can improve the world is to improve its governance. It’s not that we haven’t got extremely talented people in the world, it’s that we don’t always know how to make good decision. I’d like to change that.