There is a lot of literature around decision making but much of it functions on the pretext that the problem around which the decision is made is solvable. There is also a tendency in the books and articles I have read to treat decisions as atomic and abstract elements disconnected from their context; this could probably be the subject of further posts. All are bias towards outcomes.
Outcomes are really important and we should be aiming for the best in our decisions but what about the underlying structure of decisions and decision making? The literature focuses on the content, not the container. On the subject of making 'better decisions' I have been exploring the question
Can a poor outcome be the product of good decision making?
Or put another way, is high-quality decision making made invalid by a bad outcome?
As I explore decision making further I have asked a number of close contacts how they know they are making a difficult decision. One of the answers that hit me as especially insightful was that difficult decisions are associated with the feeling of wanting someone else to make them on our
hat needed to be made, uncertainty that still exists even having made the decision, but the release that also exists having owned the decision.
Difficult decisions come with rich and involved context. It is unlikely that they could be considered difficult decisions if they did not. Indeed the insight here would be that the difficulty of the decisions we make is inextricably linked with the extent to which we are connected with their context: your personal wealth will likely determine where on the scale of difficulty you find the decision to spend money.
To make this dynamic even more complex, sometimes our decisions also cannot lead to better outcomes. Intractable situations come bundled with compromised outcomes regardless of the quality of the decision making. We can go further to say that decisions are by definition a form of compromise; the perfect outcomes are possible only when a problem sits in the clear domain and the scale of compromise is so small as to be imperceptible, and irrelevant to the outcome.
So what are the characteristics of high-quality decision making? What are the hallmarks of 'better decisions', even when ideal outcomes are uncertain?
These are questions I am exploring now but I would like to offer two starting points.
The self-ownership of our decisions (both the unconscious and conscious) is a profound matrix on which to build our sense of better decision making. The ability to distance ourselves from our decisions robs us of our agency and decreases our effectiveness. The ability to own decisions, especially those we made unconsciously or semi-consciously, roots us firmly in our own existence.
I remember as a child that acute feeling of lying about my choices in the hope that it would lead to better outcomes for me. I see in my own children now the upset that comes when blaming others for misfortune that they themselves had agency to avoid. Disownership is the realm of Kartmanns' Drama Triangle, it is the realm of recrimination for others, of sloughing off my agency in favour of percieved short-term outcomes. Ownership is an antidote to these things.
The second starting point for my own consideration is that high-quality decision making is context-aware. It recognises that decision making is
- often complex
- sat in time, chained to other decisions
- the intersection between the internal and external world
- always aligned to our beliefs
- often rationalised afterwards, especially in the case of unconscious and automatic decisions
This list is a work in progress but gives some flesh to the direct of travel.
Some Final Thoughts
Decision making is an art. We are not good decision makers we are decision practitioners, practiting our art some days more successfully than yesterday, sometimes less so.
In this way the content of our decision-making bucket changes often, but the structure of the bucket itself is one that we build through practice and repetition. This is the basis of what might be described as moral character; an internally coherent set of forms that we use for making and owning decisions. A developing and maturing agency as we move through the world.