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Want to make smarter, faster decisions? Add this third element to your pro-con list

chess game
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
Sergey Karjakin, of Russia, reaches in to take a white piece from his opponent, Magnus Carlsen, of Norway, in Game 12 of the World Chess…
  • Leah Fessler
By Leah Fessler

Reporter, Quartz at Work

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Whenever I have a conflict—Should I take this gig? Move to that apartment? Order a $30 pug T-shirt I don’t need?—my boyfriend suggests that I write a pro-con list. I tend to resist: Pro-con lists can be helpful, no doubt. But they often feel like a zero-sum game—with the extensive costs and benefits canceling each other out.

As it turns out, there’s a way to upgrade your pro-con list so that you can make smarter, faster decisions. It involves adding a third element: Mitigations.

According to an article in First Round ReviewGil Shklarski, chief technology officer at Flat Iron Health and a former software engineer at Facebook and Microsoft, came up with the idea. When facing a difficult decision with two or more possible solutions, Shklarski has his teams write exhaustive lists of the potential costs and benefits for each solution.

Then he asks them to write “mitigations” for each solution. “This is where the facilitator should walk the group through how to soften, allay, or distribute the risks associated with each of the options,” Shklarski tells First Round. “If you didn’t do it already, this exercise forces you and everyone to think through what it would really be like if that option were selected.”

Basically, mitigations are the compromises a group of people would make if solution A wins, to ensure that people’s concerns over solution A are addressed and that they don’t lose out on all the benefits of solution B.  For example, Shklarski told First Round about his team’s debate over whether their professional titles should be changed to indicate seniority, or whether everyone should just be “engineers.”

How to structure the debate.

Each solution had upsides:

  • Seniority titles provide clarity on CVs, and can help in hiring.
  • Flat-titles promote equality, and diffuse tension and drama between peers.

And downsides:

  • Seniority titles pull rank into technical discussions, and amp ego and politics.
  • Flat-titles invite less recognition, and hurt people’s future marketability, as their CVs are less clear.

Mitigations made the negotiation far less divisive. For example, if the company kept the flat titles, they decided that they would find other ways to recognize and demonstrate employees’ individual contributions. And if they switched to titles that reflected seniority, they would clarify that seniority didn’t give employees freedom to pull rank on each other during debates.

Preemptively listing the mitigations for each possible solution is particularly important when you’re working on a team that has strong opinions about which option is better. (That is, every group project ever.) This practice eliminates the anxiety that one solution has to exclude the upsides of the other, and, in turn, enables you to view all possible solutions more open-mindedly and less defensively.

“Having mitigation conversations elicits opinions and feedback from a wider range of people, and prompts the group to see the situation from other points of view — including those of other departments within the company that might touch or be affected by the decision at hand,” writes First Round. “It also gets everyone collaborating on possible solutions to the negative impacts on others.”

Plus, mitigations can resolve mundane issues, too. Instead of buying the pug T-shirt, I decided to go to the dog park for free. Even better.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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