When Binary Decisions Are Elusive

best practice Mar 10, 2014

Decision processes intrigue me especially as I’ve moved into positions that require far more complex decisions on issues that have larger impact. There is the self-reflective part of the process – why do I make the decisions I make – that I’m examining through the most excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow (and if ever there was a book to make us question why we make decisions, that’s the book).

There’s also the process of decision making in a group context. Decision making in a group context can be hard. When anything is hard, I always try use frameworks. Sometimes frameworks need tweaks. Let me explain.

Yes / No Required?

New to the job, I’ve always tried to take complex issues and break them into “if/then” and “yes/no” decision branches. The idea is to force some kind of decision so that progress (or something) can result. I can then plan accordingly.

Say the district has a one time, unique chance to order a couple of dozen Flux Capacitors for special instructional buses that would allow us carve out a few extra months of school for our students (this would solve the unfortunate consequences of the gazillion snow days we’ve had this year).

The decision process would look something like this:

Decision Making 1a

And indeed, sometimes it works this way. You go with yes or you go with no – but either way you move in a particular direction. The job then becomes dealing with the good (or bad) outcomes of the decision.

But it’s Never Truly Binary

There is always a third branch in a yes/no question.

Copy of Decision Making 1a

This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, not answering the question spawns complexities. One of the more enlightening things I’ve learned is that this is sometimes a legitimate and prudent course of action. This issue is that I haven’t learned to decipher well when this is prudent. It’s also quite maddening for me because I tend to be action oriented. In my inexperience, I’m left wondering questions like:

  • Crap, what political implications did I miss? (And if I missed them – is a “not answer” a polite way to communicate to stop asking the question?)
  • Did I not explain the if/then scenarios clearly enough?
  • Is not making a decision protecting the group and/or district in some way?
  • Did I totally botch the timing of asking the question?

The flowchart is a bit miss-leading because not answering questions produces outcomes as well (sometimes outcomes that are remarkably similar to the yes/no outcomes). To me though – a not answer seems to result in less controllable outcomes. And that can be scary. Even when it may be the best course of action.

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