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Anatomy of a decision

Posted on: Thursday 8th of September 2011


A chat with my Ctrl-Shift colleague Paul about his weekend illustrates much of what I’ve been saying about the market for decisions.


His story was pretty familiar: great weekend out in the country, awful traffic on the way home resulting in delay, kids getting restive in the back of the car. Paul and his wife realise they’re not going to get home in good time for dinner. So they get out the smart phone and find a place to eat in a local town which turns out to be great. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, a minor family crisis became a great way to end the weekend instead.


The way Paul told me this story, however, really helped dissect the situation to reveal the anatomy of ‘a better decision’ even in a mundane, day-to-day situation like this. Here’s some of what that dissection reveals.


At the very top level, we always need to make decisions about decisions: what’s the decision I really need to make now? At any one time, there’s probably only a few decisions that are really urgent and important – that really require your attention. The rest can wait. (For many of us, the real psychological joy of leisure time is that, for just a few moments, we don’t need to make any decisions). In this example the top priority decision was ‘what to do about feeding the kids now we’re late’.


Immediately, that initial ‘decision about a decision’ began to define the criteria defining what a good decision looks like. In this case, the prime driver was ‘somewhere nearby’ (location) mixed in with secondary considerations such as ‘time to get there’, ‘what the kids like’, and so on.


There was, however, an element of conflict – the need to make decisions about trade-offs. According to Paul, the kids immediately said ‘McDonalds!’ But he and his wife said ‘No!’, thereby catapulting them into a situation of negotiation and compromise.


Behind this, there was the role of values and lifestyle judgements, which define underlying metrics of success. Some parents would have said “Yes! McDonalds!” – making their decision perhaps on the basis of money, or perhaps the decision-making criterion “the most important thing is to please the kids”.


I don’t know what Paul and his wife’s value/lifestyle judgements were on this occasion. It could have been “we don’t like big corporate chains”, or “we’re not going somewhere that’s boring for us”, or health considerations, or simply “oh no! Not again!”. Either way, it made a new decision necessary: a decision about decision-making criteria – on what basis do we make a decision about where to eat?


In this case, the agreed-upon criterion was “find the most recommended restaurant in the nearest largish town”. This, in turn, generated two new decisions: what sorts of information do we need to address our chosen decision-making criteria? And what’s the best source of such information? (The winner in this case being Trip Advisor, which has a reputation for lots of restaurant reviews.)


At this point, there was a need to review and reconsider. Their decision-making journey had brought them to a curry house they had never heard of before. Did they want to continue or think again? Luckily, the curry compromise passed all necessary tests, at which a new decision-making hurdle immediately arose: how to implement this decision?


This, in turn, opened up yet another decision: about what sources of information to rely on when making the decision about implementation. Luckily, thanks to Google Maps Paul and his family managed to negotiate the one systems of Andover and find a car park very close to the curry house in question – which turned out to be great. A great decision, well made and well executed.


Just one more observation. Within this process there was an unstated and important piece of advice. An alternative approach to making this decision might have been ‘head for Andover town centre, go to the bright lights and see what restaurants we can find”. I’m sure you’ve been in similar situations. Often they’re disastrous. This curry house happened to be stuck down some gloomy backstreet that Paul’s family would never have ventured to if they hadn’t had the tip. This illustrates another common theme of good decisions: the ability to seek and get advice, including knowing what questions to ask and what pitfalls to avoid.


So: this little anatomy of a mundane, everyday decision reveals a wealth of complexity, including:

  • Decisions about decisions: is this really the decision I need to focus on right now?
  • The role of values in shaping the choices we make
  • Choosing which criteria to use in defining a better decision for this occasion, including metrics of success
  • The near inevitability of conflicting criteria; the need for trade-offs and compromises
  • Decision-making rules of thumb: which decision-making approach should we adopt? (e.g. ‘most recommended’ vs ‘what we can find in the town centre’)
  • Deciding what sorts of information we need (e.g. information about peer recommendations)
  • Decisions about which sources of information to rely on (twice here: first when making the decision itself; second when making the decision about how to implement the decision)
  • Deciding how to implement the decision
  • An element of advice: what pitfalls to avoid



The challenge ahead


The intriguing thing about this little story is that a few years ago Paul would have told it completely differently. His family’s decision-making process has been transformed: using a smartphone to visit a peer review site vs looking at a map and saying ‘let’s see what we can find there’. And it resulted in a new winner (the curry house) and a new loser (the city centre restaurant). Neither winner nor loser had either much knowledge or control over this shift. That pretty much defines the decision-making challenge going forward.


  • For sellers, it’s how to understand peoples’ changing decision-making processes so that they end up winners rather than losers.
  • For the new industry of decision support services, it’s how to help people clarify, simplify, inform, enrich, streamline and manage and benefit from better decision-making processes.


Alan Mitchell