How to Make Good Decisions


My husband laughs that it took me the same amount of time to deliberate which law school to attend as it took to order lunch that day! (I chose Roger Williams on full scholarship and a cheeseburger.) I got lucky with my law school decision; it was completely intuitive. However, most decisions don’t seem as divinely inspired.

If you are facing a choice that deserves contemplation, there are models of decision-making available for your reference. The model I’ve found useful is called PrOACT, and it is detailed in a book called Smart Choices, which was part of the curriculum at that law school I so quickly chose. The basics of the method go like this:

Problem: You can’t make a good choice unless you know exactly what decision problem you are seeking to solve. The way you frame the issue is critical because we often limit our options at the outset. For example, if you identify the problem as “which new software should we purchase” you might be neglecting to consider the value of remaining with your current system.

When you are defining the problem think of it as an opportunity – for growth, change, increased efficiency, development, etc. Being aware of what triggered this opportunity for change is also helpful. The trigger might have been your boss indicating there is money for new records management software in the budget. The triggering conversation with your boss might lead you to narrowly define the problem in terms of which software to purchase, while it might yield a better decision to frame the problem as “how can we best manage our records.”

Objectives: Now that you know what problem you’re solving, focus on your goals. Having objectives helps you evaluate your options and explain your eventual decision to others. Write down all the concerns you hope to address and then re-write them into succinct objectives.

With each objective ask yourself “why” so that your objectives reveal the end you are looking for rather than the means. For example, for years I had “run a marathon” on my bucket list. The “why” behind that objective was so that I could lose weight. Once I realized what my end goal was (weight loss versus a marathon finish line), I accomplished my weight loss goal. So, make sure your objectives are the ends you are seeking rather than the means.

Alternatives: When you evaluate alternatives, you are going to pick the best one from your list. It is important to generate the best list of alternatives because you can’t pick an alternative you haven’t considered. Some tips for generating a great list include: use your objectives and ask how you can achieve them, challenge your constraints, set high aspirations, brainstorm, find out what others have done in similar situations, and give your subconscious some quiet time to work on the problem.

You may also wish to consider process alternatives, such as letting your choice be to define the process by which an eventual choice gets made. For example, voting, arbitration, test scores, and bids are process alternatives. Other alternatives to add in the mix include win-win alternatives that address the concerns of all parties involved and information-gathering or time-buying alternatives that reduce uncertainty before a choice is made.

Consequences: Before you select an alternative, be sure you understand the consequences of your decision in relation to your available alternatives. Build a table to help you visualize and compare consequences. For example, if you are evaluating job offers, you might have a table that looks something like this:

Objectives: Job A Job B Job C
Salary $100,000 $120,000 $130,000
Flexibility/Telework 2 days/week 1 day/week Episodic/Occasional
Enjoyment Good Great Poor

Tradeoffs: This is the point in the process where you’ll as yourself, “what am I willing to give up in order to get what I really want.” Using the above job offer example, are you willing to give up work enjoyment in exchange for a higher salary? If your main objective is salary, that might be your decision.

However, if all three factors are important objectives, then you can use your consequences table to rank your alternatives. In the table below, I ranked each item using a 1-3 scale with 1 representing the best option. When you tally the scores, the lowest score represents the best alternative, yielding a choice of Job B here.

Objectives: Job A Job B Job C
Salary 3 2 1
Flexibility/Telework 1 2 3
Enjoyment 2 1 3
TOTAL: 6 5* 7

If you like this approach, I encourage you to read the book, which is filled with more great information on this process. Best wishes to you as you make smart choices!

Krista J. Roche is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Katarina Hong

This is so helpful because decisions can be hard to make no matter what. Thanks for breaking it down like this and recommending the book, Smart Choices!