Once upon a time, when the world was younger, PCs and Windows were fun, and hair covered more of my scalp, I was going to make my fortune with a decision-support system far superior and more cost-effective than any available from that era’s industry leaders.
Sadly, my plans to market a digital coin tosser, Magic 8 Ball, and dart board fell victim to my deep-seated personal laziness and lack of initiative, so it’s only now that, thanks to others willing to leap across the digital chasm, you can find smartphone apps with some of the capabilities my younger self had imagined.
Which adds another dimension to the issue last week’s KJR raised: In addition to choosing whether to trust your gut or to depend on evidence and logic, you have a third alternative. You can rely on randomness to get you through the day.
This isn’t as preposterous as it sounds.
Start where evidence and logic work best. It’s when you can articulate the decision criteria that matter, identify reliable sources of information regarding the criteria, and … and this matters a lot … you’re confident your circumstances are stable enough that the criteria and evidence you use making the decision will continue to be valid when the present has fled and the future arrives.
Also, for evidence and logic to be useful, the time available for making the decision in question has to be long enough that the decision, once finally made, hasn’t been superseded by events.
Often, evidence and logic only take you so far — to narrowing down the alternatives to two or three that are close enough to a tie as makes no difference.
Evidence and logic often reach a point of diminishing returns. Once they do, you might as well toss a coin or throw a dart as invest in any further information-gathering and analysis.
Or, you might trust your instincts — your ever-popular-but-over-rated gut, which is more accurately labeled the voice of your experience.
How’s that work? It comes down to pattern-matching. You accumulate you experience into a sort of personal database. It contains situations you’ve faced, divided into categories. For each category it records how you or someone nearby handled the situation and how it came out.
When a new situation comes up, you find the situation category that matches best, and apply its context and lessons to what you’re facing now.
I am, of course, oversimplifying, but you get the idea. Instinct works well when new situations closely resemble past ones. It misfires, and misfires badly, when the new situations superficially appear to resemble past ones but are actually quite different beasts entirely.
Blindly trusting your gut will often cause you to hit the bulls-eye, but it will be a bulls-eye drawn on the wrong target.
If your experience isn’t truly relevant to what you’re deciding about right now, trusting a Magic 8 Ball is probably wiser than trusting your gut.
Then there are time-bound decisions — situations where being right enough now is superior to being spot-on too late. Imagine, for example, you’re playing tennis and need to decide whether to hit a lob, a ground stroke, or a drop shot. Figuring out the perfect tactic might call for as much as 30 seconds of analysis. Sadly, while you were scratching your head the ball went right on by.
In business you rarely have as much time as you’d like to make a decision, but usually have enough to avoid being reckless. So to leave you with something more than a platitude but less than a recipe, here are the steps you should take when making any important decision:
> Know your deadline. If you don’t, you’ll miss it.
> Define your decision-process. How do you plan to you apply evidence and logic to the decision? If you don’t define your decision process you’ll drown in disorganized factoids.
> Listen to the voice of your experience. Listen to it, don’t obey it. Especially, figure out how to articulate it so you understand why it’s telling you what it’s telling you.
> Narrow your alternatives. As mentioned earlier, more often than not all the evidence and logic in the world won’t get you to the answer. It will, however, get you to a short list of good answers.
> Throw the dice. You have to get from your short list to a choice, and you’ve already exhausted the other possibilities.
Depressing? Nah. You’ll never be certain anyway, because in the end, all your evidence and all your experience are about the past.
But your decisions are all about the future.