On decisions and decision-making

Guy Cuthbert, CEO

In my late twenties my colleague Ray McGrath, now a good friend, passed on the advice that when making decisions it's not about being right, it’s 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; it has grown with me and has taken on new meaning as I make more decisions, and watch decisions made around me - by colleagues, suppliers and customers.

What does it mean?

Nowadays I take it to represent three key ideas:
  • It is better to make a decision than to procrastinate (an active decision to await more evidence is not procrastination!)
  • An informed decision, based on analysis of a body of evidence in the context of clear purpose, can be considered certain
  • 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

The rarity of certain decisions

In my experience certain decisions are notable by their rarity. Unfortunately, it can be a high-risk strategy in those organisations where purpose is vague and the predominant culture is opinion-operated rather than purposeful and data-driven. I meet very few purposeful data-driven organisations and relish them when I do; in such organisations 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 in a timely manner
  • Analysts explore, assess and interrogate data with rigour, being aware of cognitive bias and applying proven analytical methods and techniques
  • Decision-makers receive analytical output in intuitive, interesting and interactive forms, encouraging engagement and developing understanding
  • Senior managers encourage a "test and learn" cycle (also known as black box thinking), allowing decisions made with certainty to be right or wrong without judgement on the decision maker - ensuring that it's easy and culturally acceptable to reverse decisions based on further evidence

Strong opinions weakly held

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. We also strive to remain open-minded in evaluating all available evidence after the effects of the decision have been measured; this is easier said than done, but we work at encouraging this approach and attitude.

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

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

The difficulties of forecasting, with particular reference to its definition and how it can be used differently,  is something we have examined previously, which you can read about here.

It is easy, however, to forget that Saffo’s mantra applies equally to evaluating 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; exploring such models increases our understanding, which can then be used to predict future events.

Opinion operated organisations

In opinion-operated organisations all opinions - strong and weak - are strongly held, even in the face of certain evidence, and lead to indecision, inaction and stagnation.

Predictable success in purposeful organisations comes from exploring data quickly to form strong opinions and holding those opinions weakly; open for re-evaluation in the light of new evidence. Behaving this way, and evolving opinions as new evidence comes to light, encourages and rewards certain decision-making - even when such decisions are proven wrong in time.

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