The decisions we make every day – frequently automatic and incredibly fast – impact every area of our lives. Michael Nicholas, author of ‘The Little Black Book of Decision Making’, explains how we can make better life choices in various challenging scenarios
Few people question the idea that the world is becoming more complex, or that this process is still accelerating. But, as change becomes more frequent, and the choices available to us multiply, it is still relatively rare for most of us to stop to consider the implications that such a huge shift might have on our decision making. To what degree are our old, familiar approaches as effective as they used to be?
The importance of being a great decision maker was highlighted by the World Economic Forum in its 2016 list of the top 10 skills that will be needed in the workplace by 2020. It placed complex problem-solving at number one, critical thinking at number two, creativity at number three – all three of which are essential requirements for handling decisions in times of change – and “judgment and decision making” explicitly at number six.
We must adapt our decision making if we are to effectively handle today’s challenges. Here are some tips.
As complexity increases, predictability inevitably declines, and therefore, uncertainty and ambiguity will also rise at the same time.
Most decision-making approaches, however, are based on rational thinking and rely on memory and logic – the ongoing impact of the scientific revolution of the 16th Century. Such processes tend to have an implicit assumption: that the past provides a useful and reliable basis for predicting the future.
We could call this type of approach “problem solving”. But, when there are large numbers of variables, or something changes in a way that is yet to be fully understood, such rationality may become completely ineffective. This is why attempts by experts to predict economic changes are so unreliable.
So, when you are facing a decision, ensure that you consider the degree to which your past experience is still useful. Might something have changed that could have already made your old approach ineffective? When necessary, try to remain as flexible as possible rather than falling back on the way you’ve always done things.
2 Get Creative
Whenever we face a problem and it feels as though the situation is hopeless, or that there are no more options available to us, it may stop feeling like a decision-making challenge at all.
But it is. The problem is simply that, in such circumstances, the old problem-solving approach, based on past experience, is failing us, because that experience obviously isn’t providing a clear direction. What is needed here is a radically different form of decision making: one based on creativity.
Advances of every kind are always enabled by some sort of creative leap. This means that problems that once seemed intractable, perhaps even impossible, may become simple to solve. Our modern world is full of such advances, which rapidly become accepted as “the norm”, like the ubiquitous use of mobile communications which has opened up a myriad of possibilities that would have been hard to conceive only 30 years ago.
As the world speeds up and unpredictability increases, this type of problem will become more prevalent. So when you feel stuck, it might help you to see this as a pointer towards the need to look for a new solution, a creative approach, rather than looking to the past for inspiration.
3 Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
Applying a creative approach will often take courage. We all tend to have a natural fear of leaving behind the familiar and approaching our challenges in new ways. But when we cling to the known, we aren’t likely to do much learning. To move forward, we must get out of our comfort zone and step into ambiguity. There is really no other way to learn to handle the evolving challenges of the modern world. When you face such situations, try to remind yourself that if things around you are changing while you remain in your comfort zone, then in practical terms, you are going backwards. That means you will most likely have a problem coming.
There is always a choice – step into discomfort now and create the conditions for learning and growth, or wait until we have no other options, by which stage, the experience will generally feel much worse.
4 Let Solutions Emerge
Another problem created by the uncertainty around what the future might look like is that it is often necessary to start moving forwards before the final destination is in sight.
In the old ‘problem-solving’ world, it was often possible to work through a problem to get to the answer, then simply set about implementing that solution. Today, this type of approach would be a little like attempting to wait for all the traffic lights on your route to turn green before leaving home.
It took James Dyson 15 years and 5,127 failed prototypes before he produced his first commercially viable vacuum cleaner. But at each stage in the process, he learnt a little more. There are many times when it is impossible to see the final answer at the start, so don’t let that stop you from getting going, because high complexity requires that time and effort are required before new solutions emerge.
5 Feeling ‘Right’ is No Guide
We all use numerous unconscious mental preferences and short-cuts, even in the most basic day-to-day activities. Without them, our conscious mind would be swamped by the number of routine decisions required for living.
However, unfortunately, such preferences result in biases that can, and frequently do, lead to errors. To compound this problem, we get no mental warning bells when this happens – when we are wrong, it feels exactly the same as when we are right. We must all have had the experience where we were wrong for years without noticing the slightest clue that this might be the case, only to be faced with the shock realisation of this fact when our error finally dawns on us.
So, in your decision making, ensure that you always consider the possibility that you are wrong, even if it feels as though there is no possibility that this might be the case.
6 Realise that Objectivity is a Myth
A big part of the reason why it is so easy to believe that we are right is that it is natural to assume that our conscious experience of the world is “accurate”, and that we have a good grasp of what is happening around us. But psychological research demonstrates that we actually have a strong preference for being right, and that our minds can convince us that we “know”, even when we are mistaken.
It is a mental bias known as Confirmation Bias, and it is difficult to overcome because it operates far below our conscious awareness. As a result, we tend to believe that we are much more rational than we are.
We believe that we make decisions for good reasons, yet the research has proven that our behaviours often diverge widely from this rational picture that we have our ourselves.
There is a significant internal tension to be managed here. We want the comfort that comes from knowing that we are right, but that belief stops us from addressing uncertainty which requires high-quality questioning. And our answers will be no better than our questions. Ask any two football supporters from opposing sides to describe the match they just witnessed, and it will be immediately clear that perceptions depend on our personal perspective.
In other words, our “reality” is highly subjective, created in our own mind. Armed with this awareness, you will be able to ask better questions, and thus to better prepare yourself to make improved choices.
7 Welcome Alternative Perspectives
A simple approach that helps to overcome the error-prone subjectivity of our thinking is to learn to welcome alternative perspectives. We must pro-actively seeking evidence that flies in the face of what we currently believe, and one of the simplest ways of doing so is to take an active interest in opinions that differ from our own.
I recommend regularly reminding yourself that having a feeling of certainty that you are right is absolutely no guarantee that you are, and to challenge your inner feeling that something “just is” by enlisting others who you trust to help.
8 Seek to Disprove Your Own Ideas
There is one solution to our lack of objectivity and tendency to believe that we are right that is so powerful that it lies at the heart of scientific thinking. In science, theories are recognised for what they are: operating principles to be used until disproven, at which point they become replaced with newer and more useful theories.
Before any theory even becomes accepted, it must be tested with the specific intention of proving it to be wrong. The more attempts that have been made to do so without success, the more reliable the theory is considered to be. Yet, no matter how long a theory has stood for, no one sees the failure to disprove it as being the same thing as it being “right”! Wherever this approach is sidestepped, science rapidly descends into quackery, for example, when scientists deliberately exclude data that doesn’t support their ideas or design studies with a particular outcome in mind.
This point is, perhaps the most important principle for protecting ourselves against a misplaced certainty that we are right: we must deliberately considering why our judgements may be wrong. By actively seeking to disprove what we believe, intentionally searching out disconfirming evidence, our decision making is virtually guaranteed to improve.
* Michael Nicholas is the author of The Little Black Book of Decision Making: Making Complex Decisions with Confidence in a Fast-Moving World (published by Capstone, A Wiley Brand). For more information, see www.michaelnicholas.com