The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less

Do you love taking decisions? Most people don’t. The more options, the more information, the more effort to evaluate, the more likely that we are dissatisfied with the result. Most people hate making trade-offs, and now we have to make many with an uncertain and unknown future. Also people are usually bad at dealing with uncertainty. Our expectations get raised after spending time on the decision, so we get disappointed on the outcome, which paradoxically is usually better due to the decision time invested. 

The Paradox of Choices

This is what Barry Schwartz calls “The Paradox of Choices”.  We want to have choices, and the freedom to chose, and at the same time we hate it. We also adapt to our situation, the more we have, the more we get used to it, the less special it feels.

The solution according to Dr Schwartz is to reduce the time making trivial choices. Figure out your goals, look which options are needed, and evaluate how your choices will contribute to reaching the goals. Also look where choices are really needed, and who needs to decide? Take a look at the decision process, how do you decide, when, and why. And adapt your decision taking, based upon feedback on the results of your decision.

Targets and KPIs

Decision taking is related to the culture of an organization. If an organisations culture is about power, control, optimizing, then they create more choices and spend more time making them. They define targets and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), and start measuring everything, to steer the company. The result can be that they actually get less control, if they do not have time enough to prepare and take those decisions, or spend it on trivial decisions. Due to all the time waiting for a decision to be taken, product development is delayed, and the company loses customers and valuable business.

Empowerment

So in stead of centralizing control at the top (which is simply unfeasible), have decisions taken at all levels in the company. Not by delegation, but by empowering your employees. For empowerment to work, people taking decision need sufficient and timely information. Information must be shared within the company, and made accessible for the employees. Also a culture of trust must be established, allowing people to take decisions and maybe even make mistakes. William Edwards Deming stated in Total Quality Management that trust and driving out fear are needed to increase the quality of products and services, this is still very true.

Come back on your Decision

Change isn’t easy, and so is also coming back on a decision that you have made. You’ve spent lots of time and energy convincing yourself that it’s the right thing to do. Maybe you even told people about you decision, so you’re afraid to lose face when you change your mind. But if you don’t change, you keep getting the same results (AKA Insanity).

Back to the Root Cause of our decision problems, which is assuming that you can take good decisions. Often you simply cannot: you do not have sufficient time and information to do it. Often it’s even better to decide, and start doing things, in stead of waiting and wasting time. You have taken the best decision possible, given what you knew at that time. If it turns out that it was wrong, admit it, learn from it, and change it.

I’ve seen great benefit when changing decisions, our mind, or any other relevant changes in the Retrospective Prime Directive, which we’ve used a lot when improving software development in an agile way. I’ve also used this in Agile Retrospectives, to continuous improve the way we work and deliver more value for our customers.

Conclusions

Effective decision taking is about deciding what to decide, by who, and also decide how to decide; based on the importance and impact of the decision. Try to have decisions taken as low as possible in the organization, and assure that the people have sufficient information to decide and take action. Establish a culture that allows people to be empowered, and to decide and take action. And if you need to come back on a decision, do so, and learn to continuously improve your decision taking capabilities.

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Ben Linders

I help organizations with effective software development and management practices. Active member of several networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a frequent speaker and writer.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Dear Mr. Linders,

    I am Salmiza Saul Hamid, from University of Malaya, Malaysia.

    I humbly would like to invite you to participate in a research study on attitudes that representing agility. I discover that humanity and professionalism (HP) as the attributes representing true leadership attitude as well as agility.

    I’m in my final year and this research will serve as my MA dissertation.
    Your humble opinion will be of much help to me.

    It would be a great help if you could share this survey with other agile practitioners.

    Here is the link:
    https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/VMBMRW6

    Please be informed that all information given will be strictly treated as confidential and will be used for research purpose only.

    Thank you.

    1. Interesting study Hamid!

      How and when will you share the conclusions? They can be relevant for many organizations.

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