The Agony of Choice: Why Decision Making has Become so Difficult for Companies

Has it Become More Difficult Than Ever?

Making Decisions

The Agony of Choice: Why Decision Making has Become so Difficult for Companies

Do you get the feeling that increasing numbers of decisions turn up on your plate every day? Studies prove that it is actually true. Things used to be simple if I wanted a burger or a sandwich. But today’s fast food chains now offer an immense variety of options: Which bread would I like, what kinds of topping. Is there a sauce you prefer? Do you like it cold or heated up?... This endless succession of questions tends to spoil your appetite. The number of decisions we have to make in business life has also risen sharply. Often we feel overwhelmed when selecting from the huge number of variations, and at times we hark back to the good old days of singular systems. But why is that the case? It’s nice being able to choose from lots of options – isn’t it?

Considering Options

It is noticeable that since fast food chains introduced a plethora of options, the queues tend to move quite sluggishly. Unfortunately, we can no longer simply pick between two options and instead face a large variety. When there are only two options, the process of ticking off the pros and cons and arriving at a decision tends to be unconscious and fast. But things get more complicated when there are more options. It’s easier if one choice has positive associations, while the others are perceived negatively. What happens if we take a dim view of all options? In these cases we will review which of the options is the lesser evil. It is interesting to note in these cases that we often revert to old habits – so we pick a familiar type of bread that we have enjoyed in the past. This is an experience we learned once and which created a positive association for the future. It is a simple way of making decisions, instead of embracing a new experience without knowing whether it might be negative. Things can get a little bit trickier if we observe couples placing their orders. “I’ll take garlic sauce, please.”– “No, don’t. You always smell bad afterwards!” What happens? Now it is important to reach a compromise and to make a decision with which everyone is satisfied.

Implications for companies

These examples are relatively simple, but they demonstrate situations that you encounter in similar ways within companies as well. Cost cutting or increasing revenue and efficiency are issues that are important to all organizations. But here as well, the range of options has become broader. It was easier 15 years ago when all you did was replace a server with another one. To upgrade the systems in the simplest case, you compared the technical specifications, made a backup and then migrated the data to the new machine.

But now the situation is no different than in fast food chains. Instead of picking sauces, toppings and bread, we are forced to deal with Infrastrcuture as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS). Is it more sensible to use IaaS for a database server, or might it be better to pick the ‘database as a service’, where the administrator is no longer required to maintain the base system? What are the implications of the decision? Like in the fast food chain, we can ask the sales assistant. But might they not act in their own interests? Are they therefore trustworthy? Alternatively, we can try and sit out the problem – although this approach is hardly promising. Problems tend to occur in the most inopportune moments anyway, when there are plenty of other tasks that are more important. And what do we do about the decision if we make the wrong one? Is it then a personal failing and a loss of standing in the company? Might it be more sensible to include more stakeholders in the decision-making process to share the blame if things go wrong?

Thinking ahead

The outcome of it all: We lose ourselves in endless discussions of the problem, and in the end we only delay ourselves or end up not reaching a decision at all. At some stage, it is no longer possible to reduce the complexity of the issue. So what is the best solution when problems become so intricate? The answer is relatively simple: Make a decision and accept ownership of its results.

That may sound a little paradoxical initially – but it’s ultimately the solution to get things moving. When problems are so complex that it is impossible to reach an objective decision within a reasonable period of time, despite collecting all the facts and experience available, every decision that changes the stasis is meaningful. You can toss a coin or check your watch and pick option one if the second hand is between 0 and 30 or option 2 if is not. (Any other means of making decisions works just as well).

What happens in these situations is that you clear your mental traffic jam and start moving forward. Monitoring is essential at this point. What needs to be done to collect more information? When will sufficient amounts of information have been obtained in order to make a decision on whether it is sensible to continue along the path we have taken? Or is it necessary to return to the original problem? In the future, this pattern will be applied far more frequently than is currently the case. An important aspect in this regard is that companies need to agree and accept that there is no such thing as a wrong decision and that each decision allows them to gather new experience. After all, this is the only way to move forward when everything seems hopelessly gridlocked.

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