John at Toilet Paper With Page Numbers, one of the most underappreciated blogs around, has an excellent post about the importance of just making a bloody decision already, rather than continuing to do research ad infinitum until one is confident that enough information has been gathered. Like, in general.
John quotes from a variety of folks who are better-read than I, and who are consequently able to make a stronger case for decision-making than the typical clenched-toothed, raised-voiced demand to MAKE UP YOUR GODDAMN MINDS AND ACT FOR CRYING OUT LOUD to which I have been known to resort on more than one occasion. I’m going to quote at length, because there’s a lot of good stuff here.
Here we go: John, going straight for the jugular, starts out by proclaiming that “[l]eadership counts. Even in the absence of total access to information.” (John, are you sure about that? Have you put enough thought into this that you can confidently – oh, nevermind.) He then continues,
If…omniscience were possible, human organizations still could not attain the requisite efficiency to use the information effectively for good or ill. In any human organization, information is passed through layers of management and across functional silos. Each silo and each layer has its own preconceptions and ambitions.
This last bit is key. There’s a misconception that I’ve, um, encountered purely hypothetically, that holds that as long as everyone is communicating clearly, and as long as everyone has complete information, then everyone will agree. This is true in math – and it’s part of why I love the subject – but it’s not true elsewhere. People aren’t blank slates. We all come with our own data and filters.
John then quotes from a book review by Photon Courier, who writes favourably on Dietrich Doerner’s The Logic of Failure:
One very interesting angle explored by Doerner is the danger, in decision-making tasks, of knowing too much – of becoming lost in detail and of always needing one more piece of information before coming to a decision. He posits that this problem “probably explains why organizations tend to institutionalize the separation of their information-gathering and decision-making branchs” – as in the development of staff organizations in the military.
It also explains why individuals tend to self-segregate along these lines, and why the sets of intellectuals and effective leaders are virtually disjoint.
Photon Courier also mentions a study that aptly illustrates the law of diminishing returns as it applies to information gathering and decision-making:
In a study done many lears ago, a researcher asked psychologists to evaluate a particular individual (Joseph Kidd) based on writen information. In the first stage of the experiment, he gave them just basic information about Kidd. In later stages, he gave them more and more information about this same person–first, one and a half pages about his childhood, eventually, a detailed account of Kidd’s time in the Army and his later activities. After each stage, the subjects were asked to answer a 25-item test about Kidd.
As the the psychologists got more and more data, they became more and more confident in their judgments. But objectively, the judgments didn’t get any better. The overall accuracy remained pretty constant at about 30 percent.
I often like to point out that deciding to gather more information is often much more than a means of postponing a decision – it’s a decision itself. You’re (passively) deciding to take the time to gather information and to mull things over instead of…actively making a decision about the issue at hand and getting on with other things. And it might not be worth it.
I minored in philosophy as an undergraduate, an experience that was worthwhile if only because I’d never otherwise have read William James’ essay The Will To Believe, which I encountered in a philosophy of religion class. Alas, I can’t seem to find this essay online(thanks to jhr in the comments for the link). In it, James argues compellingly that agnosticism is a false position for anyone who cares about the existence (or not) of God.
A decision, he argues, that is live (that is, it has some subjective appeal to the chooser), forced (it’s either/or – there’s no third option that arises by avoiding the decision) and momentous (vitally important in the relevant context) needs to be made within a limited time frame – and it can’t always be made on strictly intellectual grounds. There’s no avoiding a decision, but excessive waffling can lead to making the wrong one. This essay, by the way, did little to change the way I viewed religious belief (James argues in its favour), but it did much to change the way I lived.
The ‘J’ in the title of this post, by the way, refers to judging, as opposed to “perceiving”:
Judgers prefer to come to decisions and move on. They can feel betrayed if a decision is “reopened”. They are prone to hastiness, but get things done.
Which is a nice segue into a personal anecdote to shed some light on why I feel so strongly about this. I’m sticking this one way at the bottom of this post, by the way, in the hopes of minimizing the number of people who were actually involved in this who are still reading. This one took place a few years ago, when I was working for a more-or-less nonhierarchical organization in which most decisions were made by consensus.
For the most part, this was a great working environment, at least during the 99% of the time when there were consensi to be found. But there was one issue on which the twenty (20) or so of us on staff were utterly polarized. So we talked about it. And talked. And talked some more. We usually held staff meetings once a week, for an hour or two at a time; when this one issue arose, we held meetings every single day.
A few undecided people in the middle shifted slightly to one pole or the other as a result of these talks, but by and large, we were all set in our ways after a certain point. We eventually compromised by deciding on an “average” outcome that lay somewhere between the two extreme viewpoints. (As the viewpoints spanned a one-dimensional space, this was a workable solution.) Everyone came out of this sort of pleased. There was some tension, to be sure, but we were all on speaking terms.
A few days later, some new information entered the picture (sort of – I personally thought that this information was more of a rehashing of old information, but that’s neither here nor there), and one of the higher-ups decided to reopen discussion.
And I felt betrayed. With no small amount of effort, and anger, I summoned my energy to reiterate and redevelop all of the points I’d just made at the previous round of staff meetings. And we held another round of staff meetings, every lunch hour. And we got really stressed over this. And then, finally, we came to exactly the same decision we’d come to a week earlier.
This left everyone upset, and even the most ardent supporters of our non-hierarchical decision-making process lost some faith in it. Another of the higher-ups had the idea of creating a subcommittee of five staff to whom we would defer difficult decisions in the future. Five staff members, selected in such a way that each position on the staff was represented among them, were suggested as possibilities.
Capital idea, I said, but I was concerned about the composition of the subcommittee, which in its suggested form contained some of the biggest wafflers from the ordeal that had inspired this proposal in the first place. Most worrisome was the fact that the person who’d reopened that discussion was among the five proposed members. I wanted decisive people on this subcommittee, I said; otherwise, it would be useless.
To which I was informed, and I shit you not, that it was beneficial to have a diverse decision-making committee, and that in particular, we should strive to have both decisive people, and indecisive people on it. And it was thus, and I’m not about to question the judgement of the powers that be, but let’s just say that I don’t think that the decision-making subcommittee has made a single momentous decision since its inception.