Save your decision gas tank for the ones that really count
It was twilight as I drove along that narrow country road.
Suddenly, the headlight of another car filled my view.
A terrifying sound shredded the quiet country air like a large pile of aluminium oven trays being hit with a heavy baseball bat.
A bulky mass flashed past my head and screeched on down the road in a shower of sparks, past my now stationary and wounded car.
I was 20 years old and driving my mate’s little MG Midget. I had been heading back to base after visiting a friend in the Bay of Plenty.
As I approached a series of meandering corners, I could see headlights from two cars coming towards me. While there was nothing obvious wrong, I had an insistent little voice in my head telling me to pull over and stop.
Looking back, I should have listened to that voice.
However, rather than stop, I slowed down and pulled as far to the left side of that country lane as I could, to let the two cars go past.
The first car swished past - when suddenly the second car’s headlight looked like it was coming at me through the front windshield.
I instinctively swerved to the left, but it was too late. The other car smashed into the front of the tiny MG Midget.
It turned out the young guy driving the second car had been drinking at the local pub. His car had broken down and was being towed by the first car.
He'd swung wide on the corner and, the tension in the tow rope, multiplied the impact as his car slammed into me.
It bounced off my car, and as I turned to watch, skidded for a long way, in a shower of sparks, as it was dragged down the road by the tow rope of the first car.
I was incredibly lucky.
Apart from a few scratches, I was unhurt physically.
But it was a complete wreck for me financially.
The other driver had no insurance and was a no-hoper out on bail for theft. The car I’d borrowed was a write-off and I was uninsured to drive it.
Consider and manage the risks of your decisions. But don’t let that stop you
That decision to borrow the car cost me everything I’d saved while working over those summer holidays during my engineering degree. And my mate (the owner of the car) was not a happy chappie.
It has a big impact on my life at that time …
The unintended consequences of that decision to drive a mate's car uninsured and choosing to not listen to my gut left me open to how I might get better at making decisions, and managing risk.
It also opened the door a crack to the idea that luck (good and bad) plays a part, sometimes a major part, in outcomes.
As a result I've learnt a lot about decisions and risk since that day.
Here are three little known ideas I've stumbled on, I wish I'd known earlier, that might help you make even better decisions:
Every decision has two parts - the decision process and the outcome. You can only control one of them
The 10 Pebble System for making it simple to choose from a list of options
How to make most decisions easy
Every decision has two parts – the process and the outcome
Think back on the last 12 months and all the decisions you've made:
What was the best decision you made?
What was the worst decision you made?
Now ask yourself, "Did I base those decisions on the outcome?
For almost all of us, the answer is: "I based it on the result."
The scenarios for most of us are:
The result was good – so it was a good decision
The outcome was bad– so it was a bad decision
But could there be a more powerful way to look at it?
When you pull it apart, decisions have two parts:
The process you go through to make the decision
We can control the process we use for decisions. What we can't control is the outcome
After we make a decision, things happen that are out of our hands
Annie Duke covers this brilliantly in her book Thinking in Bets.
Chance plays a part, good or bad:
A great decision process can result in an awful outcome
A poor decision process can result in a great outcome
What if, instead of assessing the decision on the outcome, you ask "Was the decision process a good one?"
If it was, then base your next similar decision on that process.
This is powerful.
Next time you need to make a decision, focus on the process you used for previous (similar) decisions. And not the outcome.
Read more: The CIO's secret to great conversations
Was the process a good one? Then use the same process. Or even tweak it to make it fit the situation better.
However if it was a great result, carefully examine the process you used. Because good luck may have played a part. Your process may have been incomplete, rushed or, on re-examination, faulty.
If you use the same process and you don’t get the good luck … then what?
Don’t underestimate the role of luck.
A mentor of mine once told me: "Successful people tend to underestimate the role of luck in success. They forget the part it plays' or fail to recognise the luck that got them to where they are. They're not aware of the cognitive biases that make them think it's all in their control. Unsuccessful people tend to overestimate the role of luck – they think it's never in their control. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle"
Focus on using great decision processes, because the process is the piece you can control
How to make decisions easier using the 10 Pebble system
The 10 pebble system delivers a simple yet powerful decision support system
Use it when you need to make a decision between a list of options e.g.
Three cities you need to visit
Whether to drink Earl Grey Tea, espresso, green tea or hot chocolate
Which of 8 different Añejo tequilas to buy
You could rank the cities one to three, the hot drinks one to four, and the tequila? … hmmm … well that gets harder to do objectively as you sample more of them while deciding …
The problem with ranking them one, two, three, etc. is it gives no information on what the relative value of each option is to you
Here's an alternative to consider
Instead allocate one or more of 10 (virtual) pebbles to each of the options
The constraint is you have a total of only 10 pebbles to allocate across all options
Let's say you're deciding which city you should to visit next - Sydney, London or New York?
How many of the 10 pebbles would you allocate to each?
I'd put 10 pebbles for New York, four to London and one to Sydney (sorry Sydney).
It tells me straight away that New York and London are easily my top two choices
And if I wanted to separate New York and London - I'd re-apply the process. This time I'd allocate eight pebbles to New York and two to London
It's then clear what my best option is. It's not even close.
That's the 10 Pebble System.
It's simple, but deceptively powerful.
You can also use it for team, or group decisions or choices.
Get each member to use 10 pebbles to rank the options.
Tally the number of pebbles for each option from each of the group and use that to decide. You can use several cycles of the process narrow it to a short list or even a single choice
How to make most decisions easy
Turns out we have a daily decision gas tank. Each decision we make, takes a little bit out of the tank.
By the end of the day it's much harder to make really good decisions.
As easy way to reduce the amount of gas you use, is to make "good enough" decisions.
A lot of people focus on making the best decision.
When we need to buy a new television, computer, or microwave we tend to look for the best possible one we can.
What if, instead, we asked "what do we need?"
Use that as criteria to find three good options, pick one and move on.
Most decisions aren't irreversible. They're not life changing.
Take the fork – for most decisions make a call and move on
The ones that are life changing are the big ones like your relationships, your job, your future, the house you live in, the area you live in. Those are the ones worth taking the time to really plan out and map out the decision.
For all those others, do yourself a favour. Pick something and move on
A wise mentor once said to me: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
Make the best decision you can, with the information you have at the time.
If more information comes to hand later, then revisit the decision if you need to.
We often call that changing our minds, but I see it as making a new decision.
So, don't sweat the majority of your decisions. Make a choice, take the fork, and move on with your life
Extra: Listen to your gut
The best decision makers use both their gut and conscious assessment to arrive at a robust decision.
Just because you can't explain it doesn’t mean you should ignore it. Malcolm Gladwell in Blink explains that deep knowledge in a subject means we can truly know without knowing how we know. For example an art dealer assessing whether a piece is a fake or genuine.
Conversely, shallow knowledge, or small samples, mean our likelihood of a bad call is far higher – is probably a bias – and is often what we'd call prejudice or generalisation.
I can't tell you what your 'gut' is for you. It can take time to recognise what internal sensations your 'gut' delivers you to help make a decision.
However, it's worth it to take the time to work out how your 'gut' communicates with you. Once you do work it out, listen to it when it talks. Don’t ignore it like I did on that day of my car crash.
I can virtually guarantee you'll never be wrong if you do listen to your gut. Equally, if you do the opposite of what your gut is telling you, you will have a far higher chance of a poor outcome.
To wrap up here's a summary of what we've covered
Decisions have two parts – the process and the outcome. We can control the decision process. We can't control the outcome.
We tend to judge decisions based on the outcome rather than the process we went through to make the decision. But this is flawed and leads to inconsistent decision making.
It's because our brains don’t tend to recognise that so many factors influence the outcome after we've decided.
Luck – both good and bad – plays a big part in that. Don’t ignore luck and don’t underestimate its power and presence.
Take the fork – for most decisions make a call and move on.
Don’t agonise over getting it perfect. Most decisions aren't irreversible.
The intellectual horsepower you use to analyse each decision depletes your resource for the next decision – which may be one you do need to turn on the afterburners for.
Use the 10 Pebble system to make it easy to find the best option out of a bunch of possibilities
Listen to your 'Gut' when making decisions.
Risk management is part of your decision making process.
Just because things are going as smoothly as the drive I was having on that quiet country road at dusk, doesn’t mean they can't change in an instant.
And of course they did. Which showed up my mistakes like pasta sauce on a white shirt. I hadn’t considered insurance. My risk management was weak. I didn’t listen to the voice in my head – my subconscious had recognised there was an issue and was furiously trying to warn me…
My process was poor and the financial outcome was awful.
But I got lucky, I wasn’t injured.
The good news was I learned heaps, from the powerful teacher that day became.
So, I hope you might learn from my mistakes and make life a little easier for yourself
Use the 10 pebble system to choose from a list. When you come to a fork take it. Just make a decision and move on. Save your decision gas tank for the ones that really count.
Don’t underestimate the role of luck in decisions. Consider and manage the risks of your decisions. But don’t let that stop you.
Work out what your gut is a listen to it. Next time a voice tells you to get off the road, not to catch the train or to go ahead and accept that invitation to coffee from a brief acquaintance – listen carefully.
Follow its instructions and keep a careful record of how it works out, so you can get better at recognising and taking advantage of it going forward.
Thanks to Sean D'Souza for introducing me to the 10 Pebble system
Annie Duke, author, Thinking in Bets
Malcolm Gladwell, author, Blink
Satisficing: "combining satisfy with suffice" is a decision-making strategy that attempts to meet criteria for adequacy, rather than to identify an optimal solution. The word was coined by Herbert Simon in 1956.
Campbell Such is GM IT for Bidfood, a wholesale food distribution business and a top 50 company in NZ. He has a varied career in New Zealand and internationally, working in technology, management and roles in marketing and sales. Reach him at Campbell.firstname.lastname@example.org and through his blog.
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