Decision making for the real world

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After I got out of the Marines, I began working on my college degree. I was working in increasingly responsible positions during the day and attending classes at night. That made for some truly surreal experiences.

The professors and textbooks painted one picture. Real life was often very different. Decision making was an area with some of the most dramatic differences.

Decision making in the textbooks

In the world of the textbooks, decision making was a straightforward, linear process. You started with the facts to define the problem. Next, you generated some possible solutions. You picked the best one and implemented it. It sounded great.

But it wasn’t anything like my experience. Here’s what things looked like from my real world view, along with some thoughts that, I hope, will improve your decision making.

Define the problem. You probably won’t start with the facts.

In the textbooks, you start with facts. But in the real world you usually start with opinions. Some of those opinions are about how the problem should be solved. Others are about who or what caused the problem. Some are about what the “real problem” is.

To get to a less-opinionated description and start moving toward a solution, you need a common way to describe the situation. I suggest asking everyone for their story of the problem.

As you gather different stories write them down. Mark key events on a timeline. This gives you something that everyone can agree on as a starting point. It helps determine what facts you need to gather.

Generate some possibilities then pick your best guess

The textbooks instructed us to “generate some solutions and pick the best one.” In my world, things didn’t work well that way. For one thing, you needed to start working on the problem to discover all the things you didn’t know. So you really don’t have a best solution. What you had was a best guess.

Three important things I learned on the job

Coming up with solutions is not a simple, straight-line process. More often, an idea will inspire you to go back and look at assumptions and data and questions and other ideas.

The first workable solution is usually not the best solution, but many groups stop there. I learned to push for a second and third solution.

Groupthink is alive and well. Bring in new blood. Once a group has developed a solution, they all own it and they usually don’t see it clearly. Time to bring in another team to challenge the solution the first group has devised.

Prototypes are better than projections

At this point it’s usually best to quit talking and set up a live trial or two. No plan I’ve ever seen was as good as a live trial. The live trials can actually be the first steps in implementation.

Implementation is part of decision making

In the textbooks, implementation happened after decision making and it was nice and simple. In my real world, it was where the fun began.

I learned that implementation was really part of decision making. Decisions get modified based on how they work. In other words, the solutions can get better.

Decision making bottom line

Decision making, like most human processes is messy and iterative. You can ignore that and believe in straight lines, simple processes, and the perfectibility of plans. Or you can embrace it and make better decisions.

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