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A Few Words On Decisions

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The Latin root of the word decision is cis or cid. As in scissors or decide. Literally, it means to cut off or to kill. So when you decide, you cut off other possibilities and go for one thing.

Excellence comes from cutting out the unnecessary. Many people find this extraordinarily hard to do. Deciding without thinking is something that only the most intuitive can do.

For the rest of us, we need to think hard about the choices we make, and stick to them. And that includes not wasting time worrying about what could have been.

Satisficing is an elision of to satisfy and suffice. If it works and it will do the job, then do it. Now that’s a decision.


American politician Donald Rumsfeld made this astute observation: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know.

There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.”

The first step to making excellent decisions is to understand what you do and don’t know. This may sound logical enough, but very few people do it effectively.

As St. Jerome wisely pointed out: “It is worse still to be ignorant of your ignorance.”

Awareness of your capabilities and limitations is the place to start.


Often the best plan is not to have one. This may sound counterintuitive, and in many respects it is. The suggestion is based on two main tenets.

First, too much emphasis on planning usually means that people are surprised when the theory they believed in doesn’t happen in practice.

Second, it assumes that the individual is well equipped to make excellent decisions as situations arise, with little forewarning.

This may be a more reasonable possibility than it first seems. As Jonah Lehrer points out in his book The Decisive Moment, we should embrace uncertainty because we know more than we think we do.

You never really know what’s coming next, but you can become adept at adjusting to new developments fast.

Or as boxer Mike Tyson put it: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”


CERN is the European Council for Nuclear Research, based in Switzerland. In March 1989, one of their computer scientists, Tim Berners-Lee, submitted a proposal for an information management system to his boss, Mike Sendall.

His response was: “Vague but exciting.” Tim’s idea of course went on to become the World Wide Web.

If we are going to make effective decisions, we have to be able to see potential. In this instance, the vagueness didn’t detract from the exciting possibilities.

As authors Chip and Dan Heath point out, to make good decisions you need to widen your options, attain distance before deciding, and prepare to be wrong. Then test your assumptions. Or get someone else to if you have a team at your disposal.

Some things are interesting to pursue, if only for fun.


The processing capacity of the conscious mind is 120 bits per second. To understand one person speaking to us, we need to process 60 bits of information per second.

Which is why you can barely understand two people talking to you at the same time. To make sense of all the stimuli thrown at us, millions of neurons are constantly monitoring which aspects of our environment we should focus on.

This is what author Daniel Levitin calls our attentional filter. Without it, we would be perpetually distracted and bewildered.

Being decisive includes deciding what not to do. As musician Miles Davis pointed out: “It's not the notes you play, it's the notes you don't play.”

For excellence, choose one thing at a time, and decide to give it your full attention.


If you have a good idea, then get on and do it. Don’t waste time wondering if it’s okay, or waiting to check with someone else. This is precisely the philosophy of American computer scientist Grace Hopper.

Despite being a United States Navy Rear Admiral, and doubtless being subject to all the etiquette and hierarchy that such an organization demands, her advice was: “If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It is often easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission.”

Yale University recently renamed one of its colleges in her honour. It takes confidence to enact this degree of decisiveness, but it’s worth it. Making a good decision doesn’t need permission, because the quality of the decision speaks for itself.


Here’s a classic joke from the comedian Tommy Cooper. “I said to the doctor: “It hurts when I do this.” Tommy raises his arm. He said, “Well, don't do it then.”

The logic is irrefutable.

If something doesn’t work, or you don’t like doing it, then don’t do it. Most people are perfectly intelligent. And yet they often keep doing the same things again and again without any noticeable improvement in the outcome.

Smart decisions involve identifying what fails to work, and systematically removing those defunct activities. So if things aren’t working, stop doing them. Decide not to carry on. Think of something better, and do that instead.


Knowing when to stop is a vital trait. True behaviour change requires excellent self-awareness and strong discipline.

In the boiling frog anecdote, the premise is that a frog placed in cold water that is gradually heated will not detect the change. It will allow itself to be boiled to death.

This is actually a myth, because thermoregulation is in fact a vital survival strategy for frogs. But the metaphor remains helpful for our inability to react to changing circumstances.

If an obese person reaches 20 stone, and then 25, at what point do they think they should take action? It is important to keep an eye out for things changing around you. At what point do you say enough is enough?

When you reach that point, make changes to suit the new state of affairs.


If you want to make good decisions, you need to master the art of listening.

Start with a hypothesis. Look at the antithesis. Arrive at a synthesis of the two.

Chief Executive A. G. Lafley instituted a new discussion style at Procter & Gamble based on this approach. It is called assertive inquiry and blends advocacy (what I think) with inquiry (what the other person thinks).

That means you have to listen properly – something many people find inordinately difficult to do. This approach is best summarised in the sentence: “I have a view worth hearing, but I may be missing something.”

This is what my friend Richard Huntington, Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer at Saatchi & Saatchi, calls strong opinions lightly held. So before you decide on something, ask yourself: what am I missing?


Making decent decisions is really hard if you can’t concentrate properly. You need to remove yourself from distractions to work out what to do.

These days, most of these distractions come from technology. If only to trick our brains into sticking to a task, we need to organize our time better.

A bar code day is bitty, and subject to continual interruption. It looks like a bar-code because the individual is constantly flitting from one task to another.

In his book Too Fast To Think, Chris Lewis references Vanessa Brady, a multi-award winning interior designer. If two emails have failed to solve a problem, her approach is: Ping pong ring. In other words, when the conversation is getting bogged down, break the deadlock with a call.


And finally, remember that quitting can be winning. Blindly carrying on doesn’t always equal success. Pause to assess what’s happening.

As the bishop and social rights activist Desmond Tutu once pointed out: “There comes a point where we need to just stop pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out who’s pushing them in.”

Sometimes we are simply trying to do the wrong thing. And you can’t do everything. So, often, the knack is just to stop.

I will leave the last word on this to American actor Robert Mitchum: “There just isn't any pleasing some people. The trick is to stop trying.”

Kevin Duncan

Kevin Duncan

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