Learning to make the right choices

Making correct decisions at work can be difficult. Karen Hainsworth offers some tips on doing it well
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The Independent Online

Some of us pride ourselves on our ability to make good decisions, keeping a cool head in the most pressurised of circumstances. Others, however, take a traumatised 20 minutes to decide what sandwich filling they want.

Decision-making is an essential skill in life and business, but there's no easy route to choosing the right option. And those who think they consistently make superlative choices are ignoring the times when they get it wrong.

"Everybody tends to think they are good decision makers," says John Maule, Professor of Human Decision Making at Leeds University. He runs courses on this topic for senior managers in the public and private sector, and finds he needs to start the day with little exercises that show how easily errors are made. "People are generally overconfident about their abilities," he says. "In complex decisions, where people have to consider goals and values and any number of uncertainties, if we act rationally we would have an impossible amount of computations. We know people have limited capacity for this amount of thinking."

To help ourselves to cope with information overload, we develop a range of short cuts. And that's frequently where we go wrong. Professor Maule gives an example of a common decision-making mistake. "A senior manager might have to decide how to allocate the budget to protect their computer system. But they judge the likelihood of a crisis occurring on how easily they can bring past instances to mind." Unfortunately, some events don't occur very often but do leave dramatic memory traces. "We know that the activity of hackers is dramatic, and many organisations spend far too much on these risks and not enough on ensuring that they have a sufficiently powered system. Yet they lose much more money on the latter."

One thing that will help us make effective choices is experience. It encourages faster, smoother decisions, and it is a bit like driving a car, says Professor Maule. After a while, if you recognise the situation you're in, your response becomes automated.

But even experienced managers sometimes fail to consider the wider context of their judgements, ignoring the impact that they have on personnel around them. Dr David Hardman, an expert in decision-making and senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University, says: "Frequently, people who are needed to carry out the decisions are not involved in the decision-making process. And because they don't have a share in it, they implement the decision badly."

Another common mistake that managers make is selecting like-minded people to be involved in team decisions. "To have an open discussion, you have to involve individuals with different knowledge backgrounds and approaches," says Dr Hardman. And, ideally, there should be a climate of openness. For this reason, some managers avoid taking part in such a discussion altogether, while others use computer conferencing, which assures participant anonymity.

Whether it's a personal or a group decision that has to be made, one of the biggest difficulties is making trade-offs. "Even with small decisions, people find it really hard to make trade-offs," says Dr Hardman. "'Am I going to spend my weekend at the beach? Or stay in and watch the football on the television?' People agonise because, whatever they do, they will have to give something up."

Theorists would argue you should break big decisions down into smaller components, consider all the costs of each element, and rate these on a scale. Then combine all the numbers to reach a final figure, and make your decision accordingly. Dr Hardman feels this is a rather time-consuming approach, particularly when it comes to deciding how you'll spend your Saturday afternoon.

For really simple choices, there is another way. "Let's say you can't decide what to buy for your evening meal," he says. "At the same time, you don't want to spend ages at the supermarket. The ideal way is to step back from that situation - take a longer view and a wider perspective. It's one meal, and it really doesn't matter whether you choose pizza or curry. So just make a decision."

He admits, however, that this is often easier said than done, even for those who teach decision-making.

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