How to decide

It has been estimated that the average adult makes about 35,000 decisions per day. That sounds like a lot of opportunities for doubt, headaches, and panic attacks if you ask me

Viviane Jalil

With so many choices and options in front of us, Mies van der Rohe’s famous saying “less is more” seems long gone. As a result, we spend more time deciding than enjoying the outcomes of our decisions. Drowning in a sea of options, we now suffer from what is called option paralysis. We all know how it feels. It’s what happens when we walk into a Prêt à Manger and freeze, overwhelmed by the myriad of lunch options in front of us. The same happens at home when deciding on which movie to stream, or which restaurant to order from. You know what I am talking about.

It seems that 8 to 15 options to choose from is the sweet spot for us to feel like we are making an informed decision. It is then no wonder why we feel so powerless to face the hundreds of options in front of us.

A few months back, I decided to spend some time investigating ways to make the decision process less stressful and time-consuming. I signed up for a workshop lead by You Can Now titled How to Decide and came out of the session with 6 tools to use when faced with a decision. I thought I would share them here because one thing I learned during the workshop is that we could all use a bit of help when it comes to decision making, whether it be in our personal or professional lives.

The methods that follow are tools to understand, evaluate and make decisions. They can be used as stand alone, or in conjunction with one another. Most often, the situation/decision will dictate which method(s) to use, but feel free to mix and match. Your call.

1. Lego Serious Play

Lego Serious Play has gained momentum in the past year or so, and has proven to be particularly efficient when it comes to visualising a situation. We tend to overthink things; to engage with situations on a purely cerebral level. Whilst some level of thinking is required, it can be useful and even freeing to involve some motion in the process as well. Using our hands activates different parts of the brain by stimulating the manual, not only the cerebral, which in turn, helps us unlock new ways of thinking about a situation.

From the perspective of decision making, the main benefit of this approach is that it pushes people to physically engage with the decision they have to make.

The assignment we were given during the workshop was to pick a decision we had to make and to visualise how it made us feel, using pieces from a Lego Serious Play bag each of us had received, in 2 minutes.

Being novices in decision making, all of us wasted 1:30 minute panicking before we started building. Our creations were rough, to say the least, but visualising what was intimidating in the decisions we faced clarified what we had to address in order to make that decision with peace of mind. Everyone discovered something, whether it be an emotional or technical block.

This method is also very powerful when used with clients, from kick-off sessions to research phases. It helps assess what people expect, what they fear/hope, and much more. The thing with Legos is that they are the perfect metaphor for decision making: You need to start with one brick, so you can build on top of it. To quote Tony Soprano: “A bad decision is better than indecision.”

2. Decision Matrix

Oftentimes, we are so caught up with a problem that we immediately try to find a solution, instead of fully assessing the problem. Enter the Decision Matrix.

In short, the Decision Matrix is a tool that helps put things into perspective by placing decision(s) on a matrix made of two axes. The benefit of using two metrics to evaluate a decision is to prevent one-sided thinking and to make sure each decision is considered from at least two angles, thus adding depth to the decision. The example provided here uses “consequential/inconsequential” and “reversible/irreversible” as x/y axis, but you can use different metrics, depending on your needs.

The matrix works best when more than one element is placed on it. These can be professional or not, or important or not. The point is to add a layer of perspective to the matrix, which helps assess the gravity or urgency of the decision.

It might sound simple, but the Decision Matrix is a powerful method because we often lack perspective when we are faced with a decision to make.

3. The 6 Thinking Hats

We all have different approaches to decision making. The optimistic among us naturally look at the bright side, whilst the pessimistic ones see the pitfalls first. Developed by Edward de Bono, the 6 Thinking Hats method allows us to change the way we think by exploring a problematic situation from different points of view, enabling us to make a decision with confidence, having considered all aspects of it. De Bono’s idea is quite straightforward: one by one, we wear each of the 6 hats, which represents a specific mindset. When wearing a hat, you only look at a situation from its perspective, then switch to a different hat to approach the same situation with a new mindset.

So let’s have a closer look at these hats.

The white hat: the analytical mindset
This hat is all about data. When wearing it, you look at the information you have, you analyse past trends, and see what you can learn from them. You look for gaps in your knowledge and either fill them or take account of them in your decision process.

The red hat: feelings and intuitions
When wearing the red hat, you look at problems using your gut reactions and emotions. You also consider how people who don’t know your reasoning might respond to your decision. Empathy and instinct both lead this process.

The yellow hat: the optimistic mindset
Wearing the yellow hat, you think positively about the situation. It is the hat that helps you see all the benefits and values of a decision. In a few words, yellow hat thinking helps you to keep going when everything looks gloomy and difficult.

The black hat: the pessimistic approach
Black hat thinking helps make your plans stronger and more resilient. Opposed to the yellow hat, the black hat has you look at a decision cautiously and defensively, considering its potentially negative outcomes. Approaching a decision from the “why it will not work” perspective sounds counterproductive, but it is actually a vital step. Doing so highlights flaws and risks, which then allows you to eliminate weak points and to come up with a different approach before embarking on a course of action.

The green hat: out of the box thinking
This hat represents creativity. This is where you flip a problem on its head and see what comes out of it. You develop new solutions thanks to a freewheeling way of thinking, in which there is no censoring of ideas, as “out there” as they might seem.

The blue hat: management
The last hat is the one helping you define approaches and solutions from a neutral perspective. It is also when you evaluate whether or not you’ve spent enough time wearing each one of the previous hats. Need more time to explore new solutions? Wear the green hat a bit longer. Still confused about your gut feeling? Put on the red hat.

By encouraging us to wear one thinking hat at a time, de Bono allows us to approach a situation one perspective at a time. This method prevents too many thoughts from confusing us whilst simultaneously ensuring that we don’t overlook any aspects of a decision. The 6 Thinking Hats can be used individually or as a group, attributing each hat to a different person and engaging in some role playing. Doing so has the benefits of preventing any confrontation that might happen when people with different thinking styles discuss a problem. Every perspective/hat is valid and equal with the 6 Thinking Hats. As creatives, we often have the green hat on, whilst clients tend to wear their black hat most of the time. There is a lot to learn from swapping roles and exploring a situation from the other’s perspective.

4. Pre-mortem

Most people are now familiar with project post-mortems; time spent reflecting on what went well, and what didn’t. But what if we could anticipate what might happen and retro-engineer from there? That’s what Pre-mortems are about.

The main idea is to look at a situation and before making any choices, imagine the worst that could happen. Once that’s done, rather than running away or giving up, come up with ways of preventing these catastrophes from happening. Oftentimes, we don’t want to think about the worst case scenarios. They scare us. But thinking about the worst gives us opportunities to address it and more often than ever, we realise the worst isn’t as scary as we thought because it can be avoided

5. The 5 Whys

Building up on the pre-mortem, the 5 Whys is another tool that can be very insightful in coming up with ways to anticipate and avoid problems. Originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota, the 5 Whys method was the basis of the company’s scientific problem solving approach. It consists of asking “why?” five times in order to find the nature of a problem, as well as its solution. You can do this in retrospect, to understand where a problem came from, but you can also use the previous tool, the Pre-mortem and reverse engineer from there, using the 5 Whys. Doing so allows you to make a decision with the assurance that potential failures and bump roads have been taken into consideration. Here is an example:

We are going over budget on a project.

Because we needed to include additional features that we hadn’t planned.

Because we learned new things during the last design sprint that pushed the product in a different direction.

Because we thought this was what the users wanted.

Because the user research process wasn’t complete.

Because the client didn’t want us to allocate more time to the research phase.

Usually, by the 5th question, you arrive at a point where you can identify a clear cause to the problem. If not, it means the initial situation wasn’t clearly defined, but you can always branch out from one of the answers and use that as a new starting point.

6. Troika

We all know asking for help is always better than spinning your wheels alone. Thinking happens in conversations and it’s been proven that 3 participants is the magic number to maximise the outcome of a conversation, thus the Troika.

Taking its name from the Russian тро́ йка (trójka, “a group of three”), the Troika method consists of asking 2 people for help, walking them through the situation and listening to their opinion and recommendations. These peer-to-peer “consultations” help reveal patterns and other insights we might not see because we are too close to the problem.

The composition of your trio is up to you. Peers can be close team members, colleagues from another department, friends, and so on. The type of decision you have to make will dictate the kind of perspective you will need, but try to keep these sessions to 30 minutes (10 minutes per person) to maximise efficiency and avoid going in circles or getting off topic. The purpose of this method isn’t to solve the problem, but to provide new insights by allowing other people to pitch in.

Easy as 1–2–3.

So that’s it! I hope this was helpful and that you can see how some of these methods can be applied both at work and on a personal level.