Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, November 5, 2018
How to make a big decision?
Steven Johnson, a science writer, tells the story of Charles Darwin and his biggest decision. The question that old Charlie was wrestling with was whether he should get married. Now, what makes this interesting is how he went about making that decision. He made a list of pros and cons, just like your mother taught you 50 (OK, in my case 70) years ago.
Darwin noted the benefits of bachelorhood — “the conversation of clever men at clubs.” If you ask me, Darwin sort of whiffed on that one, but then under benefits of marriage, he said, “children, if it please God, and the charms of music and female chitchat.” This guy is the father of natural selection and human evolution, and his best solution for a decision is a pencil and paper with a line down the middle?
The key here is that Darwin considered only two possibilities — to marry or not to marry. Now I appreciate the time in which Darwin lived, so his thinking may have been limited by convention, but when it comes to making big decisions, the core idea is to create alternative narratives, multiple possibilities, optionality. Look, Darwin had other options, the most obvious ones being living together in sin, adopting children if you couldn’t have your own or serial monogamy over a lifetime.
When it comes to decisions, the absolute requirement is to create more columns on your pad — never either/or. Paul Nutt, a professor at The Ohio State University, has done the homework here. He analyzed 78 decisions made by senior managers in major corporations and he found that “only 15 percent of the decisions involved a stage where the decision maker actively sought out a new option beyond the initial choices on the table.” Wow, so you only get to pick what is on the menu and you never bother to ask the server what the special of the day is. In Nutt’s later work, he did a similar study and found “that only 29 percent of organizational decision makers contemplated more than one alternative.”
I am fascinated by decision making. It is exactly this skill of finding what is not obvious or not known or not on the table at the time that is required of the entrepreneur. As a CEO, when you are presented with a decision to make for which there is no good initial or immediate solution, simply do not make one. Demand another option. Think of all the stories of all the men and women who have found themselves — seemingly — in a position of imminent death or destruction, and they find a way out. You need to channel yourself into the entrepreneur as MacGyver.
Nutt points out the strong correlation between the number of alternatives being deliberated at any one time and the ultimate success of the decision. On the face of this, it seems obvious — more choices lead to better choices. Thomas Schilling, Nobel laureate, once said, “The assignment is to draw up a list of things that would never have occurred to you.” The entrepreneur must demand alternatives.
The reason we often take one of the limited default options is because it is very uncomfortable to be in uncertainty. When confronted with a fork in the road, Nutt says to change the question from which fork to which road. “I took the one less traveled, and that has made all the difference,” wrote poet Robert Frost.
In order to contemplate the off-road experience, you must have a diverse group of compatriots. Homogeneity tends to lead to quicker decisions, “settling on the most likely scenario,” coupled with no deep desire to question the assumptions. But hang on, “while the more diverse groups are better at decision making, they are also less confident in the decisions they reach.” You get consensus but with less certainty. You still need a CEO to push the button.
Nutt’s next solution for stupidity avoidance is to teach the process of the “pre-mortem.” You need to contemplate that the decision you made has in fact turned out to be a disaster, and your assignment is to dissect the dead body and figure out where was the cancer — anticipated scenario planning before the patient is even in the hospital.
Rule No. 583
Darwin married Emma Wedgwood, a first cousin.