Making Decisions in a World of Uncertainty

Can you think of a time you made a decision without all the information you would have liked to have at your disposal? Is there a decision you are struggling with now?

The reality is that we make decisions like these every day in both personal and professional contexts. Think about the risk of purchasing one product over another, like a different type of coffee instead of your favorite. In the event that you’re not pleased with it, it has a minor impact and is easily correctable. There are more significant decisions such as a career change, your child’s education, or a family member’s living arrangement, in which the stakes are higher. At work, you could be faced with a decision concerning staffing, an organizational change, an intervention to save a patient’s life. The situations are seemingly endless. So, how do you make the decision when time and information are limited and the answer is not obvious?

Identify and understand the problem

If the decision you are making is in response to a problem or issue, consider whether you have identified the actual problem and your desired result. This may entail doing root-cause analysis, provided you have the time. For example, if you are receiving applications that do not align with your needs, it may not be due to a lack of candidates or technologies. One possible cause could be how the solicitation was written or how it was advertised. It could also be due to environmental factors. When diagnosing the problem, it helps to keep an open mind and consider not only what may, on the surface, appear to be attributable as the cause.

Determine the relative urgency

It helps to find out how time-sensitive the decision is in order to plan out your approach. Not all decisions are truly urgent. It is worth considering how critical the issue is and how much time you actually have to make the decision. Some decisions are life or death and need to be made right away; others do not require immediate action. Rather than approach everything with urgency, gain insight into the actual time-sensitivity. For an interesting perspective on the factor of time in decision-making, read this article.

Understand the data and ask the right questions

Especially when the decision is high-stakes and time-sensitive, you may have constraints in how much time you can gather and analyze data. The good news is there are useful frameworks you can use for improved decision-making. In this Harvard Business Review article, Cheryl Strauss Einhorn presents a useful framework that can be widely applied and adapted in many contexts. She recommends identifying the type of data you are presented with, understanding biases that may influence how we understand it, and using that understanding to reveal the questions you need to answer in order to arrive at the best possible decision.

Gather input and allow for differences in opinions

Generally speaking, high-stakes decisions should not be made in a vacuum. A better strategy is to bring a diversity of perspectives into the process. In doing this, you will likely gain a more robust examination of the issue, fuller deliberation, and different ideas about how best to solve it. More stakeholder involvement will likely also lead to more understanding or acceptance of the decision. It is important for this to be done in a way where differences in opinion are encouraged. If such differences are not supported, you will not benefit from the diversity in views that you seek to gain.

Try the “fear-setting” technique

Tim Ferriss presents a useful strategy called Fear-Setting that can aid with decision-making. In using this strategy, you will consider the worst possible outcomes to a decision, which will help you think through the ramifications of the decision, mitigate negative outcomes or consequences, and consider other options you may not have explored. By doing this you will more objectively confront the problem and avoid letting fear deter you from your decision.

In sum, some decisions will be ones that you can course-correct to go a different direction. Others are irreversible. By developing an approach that includes the steps above, you will hopefully yield better decisions and results.

Recommended Reading and Listening

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Christine is Deputy Director, Office of Ethics and Integrity of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This article was prepared by the author in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the FDA, DHHS or the federal government. Christine also serves as a Community Volunteer Leader for the American Red Cross, Montgomery, Howard, and Frederick County Chapter, and on the advisory committee for her city pool and fitness center. She is inspired to write about endurance, volunteerism, and career management, among other topics. In her “spare” time she is an avid swimmer and runner, and enjoys spending time with her family, friends and pets. Her motto is: “Work hard, play hard.”

This writing was prepared by the author in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the FDA, DHHS or Federal Government.

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