At the Crossroads: Decision Making Challenges

How many times have you faced a tough decision that you felt almost helpless to make a decision? We all have faced that moment.  The expression of “being at a crossroads” is a common expression to represent a point where a major decision has to be made.  We talk about our projects, relationships, opportunities, jobs, and even lives “being at a crossroads” to describe the seriousness of a decision or event on the future of our lives.  Just as the intersection of two roads presents a dilemma to the undirected traveler, deciding on the best direction in decision making can be quite daunting.

Figure 1: Decision Making Concerns

Figure 1 captures the results of a survey of 400 mangers and their most common concerns when having to make a major decision (HCS, 2011).  The biggest threats relate to too many choices, concern with risk, and over thinking.  A close fourth is the lack of decision making tools.   What makes major decisions so tough is the uncertainty of potential outcomes as well as the associated risk and consequences of error.   In other words, we do not know what all the potential outcomes are, the overall risk of the decisions and the associated outcomes, and the results of selecting the wrong thing.

Ancient as well as modern wisdom addresses the complexity of decision making.  When examining the breadth of insight, three core themes are apparent in most writings:

  • No Decision is a decision
  • Over thinking
  • Opportunities are present

No Decision is a Decision

Although it may not be readily apparent, no decision is in reality a decision.  Several years ago I worked with a group of managers that had adopted the “wait and see” approach to the major of their major decisions.  Their strategy of removing the stress of making complex decisions only magnified the risk of the decision making process as the decision to not act abdicated any control they might have exerted in the situation.  If you do not make a decision, someone or the circumstances will make a decision for you.

Over Thinking

Too many choices can slow us down.  The technical term for this slowing effect due to over thinking is analysis paralysis.  Basically, when struck by analysis paralysis we over think or analyze a situation to the extent that we never make a decision.  Aesop’s Fable The Fox and the Cat illustrates the age old complexities of analysis paralysis.  Here is a short excerpt:

Fox was boasting to a Cat of its clever devices for escaping its enemies. “I have a whole bag of tricks,” he said, “which contains a hundred ways of escaping my enemies.”

“I have only one,” said the Cat; “but I can generally manage with that.” Just at that moment they heard the cry of a pack of hounds coming towards them, and the Cat immediately scampered up a tree and hid herself in the boughs. “This is my plan,” said the Cat. “What are you going to do?” The Fox thought first of one way, then of another, and while he was debating the hounds came nearer and nearer, and at last the Fox in his confusion was caught up by the hounds and soon killed by the huntsmen. The cat, who had been looking on, said:

“Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon.”

Opportunities are Present

Historically, crossroads became centers for commerce or exchange due to the traffic that passed through the connection.  In many cases, small stalls came first to be followed by more permanent settlements and even cities.  Numerous modern cities and countries arose from these humble beginnings.  Every crossroads presents an opportunity.  We have the ability to make a good decision that brings us more of what we seek.

In our next post, we will explore how to mitigate these limitations.

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