By Paul Reali
This morning, my younger daughter was having a clothing crisis. “The problem,” she said, “is that both of these leggings look good with this outfit.” I decided, as parents are wont to do, that this was a teachable moment.
“If you have two good choices,” I said, “that’s not a problem. If neither pair looks good, that might be a problem. If your leggings are dirty, or torn, or don’t fit, or don’t exist, that’s a problem. If you have two good choices, though, that’s not a problem. That’s a decision.”
She’s seven, so it’s hard to say whether she understood the lesson. I figure that at the very least, she’ll change the way she talks about this kind of dilemma: she’ll say she’s having trouble making a decision, not that she has a problem.
But I learned something from this exchange, too. I realized that she did have a problem: she was trying to make the right decision, and she didn’t know how to go about it. The leggings were not the problem; making the decision was. It was obvious to her that one of the options must be more right than the other. I know that when one has two equally good options (with zero cost for being wrong), one can just flip a coin…but she didn’t see it that way. In her eyes, there was, in fact, a right answer.
We are conditioned this way, to find the right answer, the best answer. When we make decisions at work and in the larger parts of life, in most cases, one option almost certainly will turn out better than the other, and it is important that we make a good decision. After all, that’s what they pay us for, more or less: to solve hard problems and make difficult decisions.
And so, what we do is gather as much data as we can, set criteria, evaluate, project forward, etc., and then decide. We do this with a kind of eternal uncertainty. If we choose A over B, we might never really know if we made the better choice. If A worked out fine, would B have been even better? If A failed, would B have succeeded, or would it have been an even larger disaster?
How, then, can we make better decisions?
There has been plenty written about the elements of decision-making (including, on this site, a really great evaluation tool, PPCO), but rather than revisit those, let me offer a different suggestion. Let me propose that the first thing to do when trying to make a decision is to revisit the question.
This sounds obvious, I know. Still, you’d be surprised how often the problem being solved gets lost while creating the solution.
Here’s an example. A few years ago, Blockbuster Video was trying to beat back the assault of Netflix, the by-mail movie rental company. Blockbuster had the advantage of right now; a customer could decide they want a movie right now, and they could drive over to the store and get it. Netflix required planning ahead: build your movie queue online, get the movies by mail, but Netflix had the advantage of whenever, as in one could return the movie whenever they wanted to. Blockbuster customers hated late fees, hated having to drive back to the store to get the disc in the box before closing time, hated the costs associated with right now.
The problem was how to better compete with Netflix. The solution Blockbuster arrived at was to (sort of) eliminate late fees. Briefly: rent a movie, keep it as long as you like, but if you keep it more than 30 days, you get charged $30 to purchase the movie, and if you decide to return it after that, you’d get your money back, less a “restocking” fee of $1.75.
This solution (which caused them to be immediately sued for deceptive practices by multiple state Attorneys General) mostly but not entirely eliminated late fees, which customers hated, but it did not address the real problem: how to better compete with Netflix. Because it wasn’t just the late fees that drove people from one to the other: it was the collection of things that Netflix did to make renting easier, more enjoyable, and more affordable (the online queue, the predictable monthly fee, the lack of late fees or any extra fees, the home delivery, the ease of return, the very wide selection, etc.). If the Blockbuster execs had looked at each other and asked, “Does this help us better compete with Netflix,” they would have gone back to the drawing board and arrived at a different solution.
The next time my daughter has a clothing crisis, I think I’ll ask her: what’s the problem you are trying to solve? If she says, “which to choose,” I can remind her that that’s not a problem. If she says, “which one is right,” or “which one is better,” I can remind her that they are both right…and that that’s not the problem, either. I can help her to understand that the problem she’s trying to solve is which will make her happier while she’s wearing them.
And now ask yourself, the next time you are making a decision: First of all, does this solution actually solve the problem?