Opinion: On decisions and decision-making

In my late twenties my colleague (now a good friend) Ray McGrath passed on the advice that when making decisions, it's not about being right it’s often about being certain. At the time I took this at face value but I have returned to it many times as my career and businesses have evolved and grown. It is advice that I have passed on, reflected upon and reconsidered over the years.

Nowadays I take it to represent three key ideas:

  1. It is better to make a decision than procrastinate (an active decision to await more evidence is not procrastination!)
  2. An informed decision, based on analysis of a body of evidence in the context of clear purpose, can be considered certain
  3. A certain decision can only be judged as right or wrong after its effects have fully manifested - these cannot be known in advance, only predicted based on valid analysis of available evidence

In my experience certain decisions are notable by their rarity; unfortunately it is a high-risk strategy in any organisation where purpose is vague and the predominant culture is opinion-operated, rather than purposeful and data-driven. I meet few purposeful, data-driven organisations but relish them when I do; in these it is easy to make certain decisions because:

  • Decision-making is framed within the context of the organisation's purpose ie. where it is heading and why it's heading there - this provides clarity on what a 'good decision' looks like
  • Data is perceived as valuable to the organisation, so is collected, curated and made available to decision-makers
  • Analysts explore, assess and interrogate data with rigour, aware of cognitive bias and applying proven methods and techniques
  • Decision-makers receive analytical output in accessible, interesting and interactive forms, encouraging engagement and expansive understanding
  • Senior managers encourage a "test and learn" cycle, allowing decisions made with certainty to be proven right or wrong without judgement on the decision maker - ensuring that it's easy and culturally acceptable to reverse decisions based on further evidence

When working with my team at Atheon Analytics, and with our clients, I aim to stress the value of making informed decisions with certainty, aligned to our purpose and strategy, whilst remaining open-minded to contrary evidence post-decision; this is easier said than done(!) but we work at encouraging this attitude.

This is best expressed and demonstrated in Paul Saffo's mantra "Strong Opinions weakly held". He applies it to forecasting, noting that

... when one looks into the future, there is no such thing as "complete" information

It is easy, however, to forget that this also applies to the looking into the past; all data (however detailed and granular) collected by organisations is only ever an approximation of reality. Accurate organisational data allows us to build an informative model of past performance, explore this model to increase understanding and use this understanding to predict future events.

Weak opinions, or strong opinions strongly held, dominate opinion-operated organisations and lead to indecision, inaction and stagnation.

Exploring data to form strong opinions, and then holding them weakly - open for re-evaluation in the light of new evidence - encourages and rewards certain decision-making and leads to more predictable success in purposeful organisations.

Guy Cuthbert