How to improve your decision-making process

When making hard decisions, it helps to follow a deliberate process.
When making hard decisions, it helps to follow a deliberate process.
Image: Reuters/Darren Staples
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Making decisions is a part of every job, but something we often do without much thought. However, it is possible to improve decision-making skills with practice. And when making hard decisions or particularly important or contentious ones, it helps to follow a deliberate process. For our field guide to decision making, Quartz spoke to more than a dozen experts, and reviewed books and research to distill the critical steps.

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Six steps in the decision-making process

In their textbook on decision making, psychologists Don Moore, of the University of California, Berkeley, and Max Bazerman, of Harvard University, outline six steps in a “rational” process:

  1. Define the problem
  1. Identify the criteria
  2. Weigh the criteria
  3. Generate alternatives
  4. Rate each alternative on each criteria
  5. Compute the optimal decision

In practice few, if any, of our choices conform perfectly to the rational model of decision making. “Compute the optimal decision” is generally not the last point on the agenda of most meetings.

Instead, we’re limited by biases like overconfidence, motivated reasoning, and what experts call “short-termism.” We often don’t have the information, or the time we’d need, to make decisions anywhere close to rationally. In organizations and teams, decision making is also limited by misaligned incentives, culture, skill gaps, and more.

For all those reasons, most decision making ends up focusing not on finding the best option but on finding an option that is “good enough.” In group decision making, we talk it through until we find something everyone can agree on and then we move on.

Putting the rational model of decision making into practice might be impossible—and might not even be desirable—but its steps are still a useful framework for thinking about how to make decisions well. And there are ways to get better at every step of the process.

Define the problem

The elite forecasters affiliated with the Good Judgment Project, whose methods are described in our state of play on decision making, start every new forecasting challenge with what they call “gisting.” A gist is essentially a short summary, usually 100-200 words, of the most important points, the most relevant data, and the key causal factors that describe the environment they’re forecasting in.

Something similar can help with defining a problem prior to making a decision. For teams, having everyone produce their own short “gist” separately can help surface unique insights before the team gets together to discuss the problem. If team members include different information in their summaries, that could signal disagreement or just mean different team members are bringing different information, experience, and perspectives to bear on the problem.

Identify and weigh the criteria

Textbook models of decision making talk about picking the option with the highest expected value: you have something in mind you want to optimize, like making money, and so you pick the option that maximizes that. Decisions in the real world are seldom so simple.

Most decisions involve weighing multiple criteria against each other. Sometimes they’re both business objectives, like balancing customer acquisition and customer churn. Sometimes they are fundamentally incommensurate things, like profit and ethics.

Jenn Logg, a professor of management at Georgetown University, suggests having team members try to describe the algorithm they would use to combine multiple objectives—an idea she credits to Daylian Cain, a researcher at Yale.

For instance, when making a hire, team members may value candidates’ past work experience, their technical skills, and how they performed in the interview. Logg’s suggestion is to have each team member write down how much weight they would put on each of those three criteria and then come together as a group to discuss them. The point isn’t to create an algorithm for assessing candidates, but rather to start a discussion about weighing different criteria against each other.

Generate alternatives

One of the easiest ways to improve your decision making is simply to put more options on the table before choosing. “Just forcing [people] to consider other possibilities turns out to be tremendously helpful,” says Moore. In his book Perfectly Confident: How to Calibrate Your Decisions Wisely, he cites research that found most decisions are about whether to do something, meaning “each decision is a go/no-go choice.” Instead of these “whether” decisions, Moore says individuals and organizations should focus on making “which” decisions, by considering more alternatives before deciding.

Just as the forecasters in the Good Judgment Project produce their “gists” separately before comparing notes as a team, consider having every member of the team come up with options independently, to avoid groupthink, and then share them with everyone.

Rate each alternative

This step is perhaps the most difficult, since it involves connecting options to outcomes and usually requires forecasting, which is a skill unto itself. The same lesson about the value of independent judgments applies here, too: have multiple people rate each option according to each criteria, and then either have them discuss those ratings as a group or even consider relying on the average to harness the wisdom of the crowd.

A few other things to keep in mind:

  • If data and statistical algorithms are available to help make predictions, make use of them. Although algorithms can be deeply flawed and deserve careful scrutiny, they’re often better at making predictions than people are. (If you’ve included the right criteria in your decision-making process, you’ll be more attuned to problems like algorithmic bias.)
  • Encourage everyone participating at this stage to think probabilistically. Don’t just ask what’s most likely to happen if each option is picked. Ask them to describe a range of possible outcomes.
  • Ask participants to start by considering the “outside view.” This refers to thinking about as wide a range of examples as possible, not just the case at hand. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning psychologist who coined the term, described a case where he asked colleagues working on creating a new curriculum how long it would take to complete. Thinking narrowly about just their own project, all said between one and three years. Kahneman then asked the colleague with the most experience on similar projects how long they usually took. The colleague answered none had taken less than seven years, and 40% were never completed at all. Focusing on the “outside view” means thinking about the big picture and asking questions like “How often does something like that usually happen?” or “How has that turned out in the past?” Doing so helps avoid some of the cognitive biases that creep in when thinking about a particular project.

Do a “pre-mortem”

The last step in the rational decision-making model is easy, in theory: just compute the optimal decision—why didn’t you think of that? In reality, even once you’ve evaluated the consequences of different options it’s not always clear which is best. But as you weigh your final decision, perhaps choosing between just a couple of options, experts recommend trying something called a “pre-mortem.”

A pre-mortem involves imagining that the decision has turned out poorly then telling a story about why it did. Doing so helps surface vulnerabilities or hidden assumptions. And it can be combined with another exercise called “consider the opposite.” Considering the opposite involves playing devil’s advocate, and especially thinking through what will happen if some of your key assumptions turn out to be wrong. Considering the opposite and doing a pre-mortem can help pressure test a decision before it’s final.

Keep track and look back

In their research on prediction, Philip Tetlock and Barbara Mellers, psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania, have consistently shown that forecasters get better with practice. Because forecasters get clear feedback on how they’ve done—the thing they’ve predicted either happens or it doesn’t—they have the opportunity to improve.

Just practicing by deciding a lot won’t make you a better decision maker. But if you record your reasoning, the other options you considered, and what you expect will happen, and then look back later on and see how reality compares, you have a much better chance at improving. Nothing is required to do this beyond a spreadsheet or a document, but some collaborative decision-making tools like Cloverpop make it easier to keep track of team decisions within tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams.

Diverse teams do better

One clear theme across decision-making research is that diversity improves teams’ performance. More diverse perspectives and life experiences will mean a richer understanding of the problem, more options surfaced, better forecasting, and very likely more ethical and inclusive results.

Emotions are information

In a recent Quartz at Work workshop on the science of decision making, Ann Tenbrunsel, a professor of business ethics at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, said that discomfort with a decision is often a sign that something important isn’t being considered. For example, it could mean some key criteria has been left out of the process.

Likewise, Moore says that emotion shouldn’t be treated as something to be stripped out of the decision-making process. Yes, emotions can create bias and lead to poor decision making. But they also tell us important things about our goals.

“Some of the advice I give could be misread as putting the head in front of the heart,” Moore told Quartz. Instead, he says, the wise decision maker will “put their head and their heart in dialogue with one another.”