The Art of Making Decisions

Is your decision-making science? Art? Or both?

Are our decisions actually in our hands, or, are they part of something bigger, a process which helps and guides us towards getting to know and define ourselves a little bit better with every decision we make along the way?

Decisions and Choices

Sometimes decisions come in the form of simple choices which look like they are small in consequence. “What do I eat for breakfast?” for example. Some decisions like “Who should I marry?” are without a doubt big in consequence. What actually defines small and big decisions? The breakfast example looks straightforward – but what if the menu decision taken leads to food poisoning? The moment you start thinking about it, each decision takes on a life of its own and even decisions which may seem fast, easy, and simple on the surface can quickly become complex.

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I know people who struggle with decisions regardless of their complexity. But I also know people who treat decision-making as an extreme sport. In either case, I believe the process of decision-making is a skill that can and should be practiced consciously and that we can all get better at it.

Science/Data and Conscious/Subconscious

I was born in Germany, where we have a running joke for decision making:

  • for simple decisions — create a sheet listing pro’s and con’s on each side respectively;
  • for more complex decisions — develop a table with multiple sheets, using as many data points you can possibly think of, so that a proper, rigorous analysis can commence.

In our increasingly data-driven world, decisions come with an exponentially-increasing amount of data for consideration. We source such data to help us make decisions, because we believe decisions are made on a conscious level. However, most of our decisions are governed by our subconscious — triggered by stored emotions and past memories.

Further complicating decision-making is the near-impossibility to accurately predict the outcome of all possible options. Especially in business or politics, we rarely have the luxury of the specific, timely, and contextually relevant data (and the personal and organizational ability to process it) within the timeframe the decision requires.

So how to make decisions?

Decision-making Techniques

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An independent German EU parliament politician takes a vigorously practical approach to his decision-making. Being independent, he votes “yes” 50% of the time and he votes “no” 50% of the time on almost all of his votes. His logic? The sheer volume of information is not able to be digested, so wouldn’t — necessarily — lead him to making better decisions for the people he represents. Of course, with major issues and when opinion polls are available, the bigger parties pull him over to their side. But for him, his 50/50 rule is a good solution for managing his high volume of decisions.

In a world of ever-increasing (and often less digestible) data, heuristic techniques are one way to deal with information overload. This TED talk shows how heuristics can help all of us to better navigate decision making when there’s a near-infinite amount of data.

Heuristics in Investments

Heuristics can also be applied to investment decisions. As both a founder who has raised millions of dollars in capital and as an angel investor in startups, I can relate to this concept of heuristics, especially during a company’s early stage. It’s easy to get a false sense of confidence from the data. But great data does not guarantee a company’s ultimate success, nor a high ROI. If it did, Venture Capital (VC) funds would never have a poor performance. We would also not highly value fund managers who essentially excel at reading people in addition to just distilling and crystallizing data and information when looking at a deal.

There was an interesting discussion recently here on LinkedIn about what it takes to become not just a good but a great investor or Venture Capitalist. In my opinion:

A great VC needs -above all- to be able to read people well. If you can look someone in the face, knowing that person will be successful within the period of time in their lives where you entrust them with your fund’s money, then you’ve mastered an element beyond art and science, hard to get to, not fool proof, but worthwhile practising life long.

It reminded me of the movie “Along Came Polly” starring Ben Stiller and Jennifer Anniston, where Stiller plays an insurance broker who analyses everything. To make partner, he’s assigned the task of insuring his firm’s most uninsurable clients. In the movie’s pivotal scene, he asks his childhood friend (who is actually an actor and has no expertise in insurance whatsoever) to deliver the big presentation to his company’s number-crunching board in order to convince them to insure the people that the data says are uninsurable:

It’s a scene I thoroughly enjoyed and often recall when I meet people in person. It tells me to trust my gut and train my sixth sense as the “decision maker for our decision-making.”

Beyond using Logic, develop a 6th Sense for better Decision-making capabilities

While we make use of our first five senses without any special training or even awareness, our sixth sense only starts to grow once we consciously decide to train it. What better way to improve our decision making than to apply our sixth sense to it?

This ability to tap into our sixth sense is what brings the art to the science of our decision making. Our five senses help us to analyze and process the data but it’s our sixth sense, driven by our experiences, which helps us to make better decisions whilst having more fun making them!

How do you make YOUR decisions? The fast ones? The easy ones? The small ones? The big ones? And especially the tricky ones? Please share in the comments below and let’s learn from each other.

Special thanks to Margit, Ken, Aby, Deep, Zubin, Gul and Aly for helping me with this article and thank you for the excellent photos Pixabay!

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