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Is being 51% sure enough to make the right decision?

by Imogen Lees26 April 2022 3 Min Read

How often do you fear missing out on something 'better'? When deciding what to have for dinner leaves you immobilised?

It's called optimisation anxiety, and it can significantly impact our ability to make decisions with conviction.

If you’re calling the shots for your business, you might struggle with the pressure of having the final word. Deciding how to effectively delegate, where to focus resources and how to find your next customers can feel intimidating if you’re not 100% sure. On the other hand, deliberating over details and options can feel like an inefficient use of precious time. 

When building products and businesses, good decision-making is all about mitigating risk. It’s about making the best decision with the information you have at the time and then learning from the data so to make a more informed move next time.

So how do we go about making the right decision? What does ‘right’ look like? How sure do we need to be before taking the leap? 

A single formula for decision-making success (we wish) 

We’re certainly not the first to ponder this topic. Dutch polymath Daniel Bernoulli came up with a simple formula to assist in decision-making way back in 1738:

TRANSLATION: expected value = odds of gain x value of gain

Basically, the expected value of any of our actions is the product of two things: the odds that this action will allow us to gain something and the value of that gain to us. In theory, we’ll always know how we should behave and what decisions to make, if we follow this formula. 

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to estimate the odds or value of success. By nature, humans tend to rely on their own fallible or biased memories and experiences to make a measured decision on odds, which leaves us prone to error. 

When it comes to decision-making at Planes, there are several frameworks we use to help our clients and us. Whether that’s Jobs-To-Be-Done for strategic and market positioning, or RICE or BETS for quickly identifying the next valuable problems to solve.

Whatever the framework, there are some consistencies in approaching a problem when you’re not sure about being sure.

A 3-step process for better decision-making

We’ve aggregated all our learnings from projects and spent hours trawling the internet to slowly optimise our decision-making process. The general consensus is there are a few steps that will get you to 51% sure – and be confident enough to ship it.

1 . Simplify the problem to challenge constraints

When faced with a question, it’s all too easy to race into finding solutions. But beginnings matter, and defining the brief helps to focus on details that could trip you up later down the line.

Start by identifying the problem and the minimum requirements to solve it. Even if you already have an eye on potentially high-value ideas, focusing on the minimum requirements means you move, experiment and learn quickly.

 "You can't beat a good spreadsheet - get all the info down, put some columns in with key things you need, conditionally format so that you can quickly see what is ticking most of the boxes and then decide based on that.”

Kate Westbrook, Software Engineer

Too many teams jump right into problem-solving and accept constraints before fully understanding the facts. This can be as simple as asking more questions to help define the problem; 'why do we want to do this?', 'what benefit would this solution have?' or 'how would this change impact us?'. After all, miscommunication is the number one cause of all problems (according to Earl Sweatshirt).

2. Collect information from the people around you

It’s an approach drilled into product managers from the word go: validate your decisions and assumptions with the people around you. It's why we constantly test before releasing to the public – who wouldn't rather make mistakes privately first?

Decisions made in a vacuum are also harder for other stakeholders to buy into. By opening up the decision-making journey you'll find that people are much more invested in the outcome.

So who do you ask? When you're collecting information it's important to consider bias. It's all too easy to ask a bunch of people with the same background and experience and get exactly the same answer each time. Picture it like your social media feed; people were shocked when Hilary Clinton lost, but it turns out the algorithms were serving us the same news and opinions in a little bubble.

“Speaking to a range of people helped me understand the reality of a career in tech. I connected with members of inspiring community groups and heard about their experiences, and I spoke with mentors who helped to give me confidence about my decision to move.”

Kunmi Williams, Software Engineer

There are lots of ways to get more diversity of opinion into our decision-making process, like finding existing communities to tap into and talk to. If it's user research you're doing, adding inclusive criteria to a research brief and asking whether the people you're speaking to have specific needs that you might not have considered can help to reach more diverse groups.

Why we hate making the wrong decision @versusthemachines

3. Create an environment for taking risks

At the end of the day, nobody likes to make a wrong decision. Brain imaging technology has even quantified our loss aversion bias and found that we are twice as sensitive to potential loss as we are to potential gain. 

When it comes to decision-making, this bias makes us much more likely to get trapped in indecision as we try to avoid the risk of getting it wrong. Unfortunately, if we aren’t willing to risk the occasional bad decision, then we are limiting the number of good decisions we can make.

By moving in stages you'll get small things wrong, rather than big things. 51% sure is more than enough to get you onto the next decision. Working iteratively and testing as we go means you can gradually mitigate the risk of making the ‘wrong’ decision. Consider: what’s one small decision you can make now that will unblock you and stop you from worrying about the 49%?

At Planes, we see risk-taking as being unafraid to fail. We foster an environment where we’re encouraged to test new ideas, try new approaches and learn from our mistakes. 

Because in making space for risk, we're opening ourselves up to invaluable opportunities to grow and learn. After all, indecision and over-caution can also incur high costs. It's better to make the best possible decision with the resources we have and adjust accordingly if things don’t go to plan. 

Being 100% sure about anything is close to impossible. Embrace the doubt and do it anyway

I’m our marketing lead and I’m in charge of our brand, content and Planes fan club. I’m tracking your every move on this website, including how long it takes you to read this bio.
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