All you ever need to know about decision making (including why it must be avoided)

On decision making

Jorn Verweij
09 Nov 18

An original article by Decision Free Solutions

Shown here are the first couple of sections  of the article “On decision making”. The full article is available as PDF. For the PDF file of this report click on the download-icon on the left-hand side of this page or simply click here.

Note to the reader: This article is a chapter of the manuscript with the work title “Achieve aims with minimal resources by avoiding decision making — in Organisations, (Project) Management, Sales and Procurement (Everybody can manage risk, only few can minimise it)”. The article refers to other chapters, but can be read on its own. Other chapters available on the website are “On experts and expert organisations”, “How to predict future behaviour of individuals and organisations”, “The four steps of DICE that will change the world” and “The five principles of TONNNO that will avoid decision making.”

A general introduction to the approach of Decision Free Solutions can be found here.


The paradigm shift of identifying a decision as a risk

We live in a world which equates strong leadership with bold decision making, which is full of people aspiring to be (ultimate) decision makers and who are supported by an entire industry eager to assist, facilitate and provide training in decision making. In this world, stating that decisions increase risk and shall be avoided presents a paradigm shift. It is thus essential to be transparent about the meaning of the word “decision”, its related concepts, as well as its alternatives.


The meaning and the context of a decision

The Oxford Dictionary definition of decision is: “A conclusion or resolution reached after consideration”, and that of consideration: “Careful thought, typically over a period of time”.

A decision is thus defined as a conclusion or resolution reached after careful thought.

The following is now put forward:

  1. In order to be able to make a decision there must be something to choose between: a decision is therefore a kind of choice.
  2. There is “a something” that is given thought to, and the decision will affect this something. In other words, there is a purpose or an intent to a decision: a decision is made in the context of a desired outcome (an aim) that is to be achieved.
  3. When something is totally transparent (like letting go of a helium filled balloon), there is nothing to think about (it will rise). Vice versa, when something is given “careful thought” by someone, this is indicative of this something not being fully transparent.
  4. If someone comes to a conclusion or resolution in a situation which is not fully transparent, the impact it will have on the desired outcome is uncertain. If a situation is not transparent, it is not possible to substantiate how and in what way the desired outcome will be affected.  

Decision clarified

From the above follows that a decision is a choice made in a situation whereby it is not entirely transparent (at least not to the decision maker) how that what is being considered within the context of an aim will affect this aim.

If everything would be fully transparent there would be nothing to give thought to. It would be obvious what to do next. Therefore a decision would not be required as there is nothing left to choose between.

When, however, in absence of full transparency a decision is made, the decision maker does not fully oversee how, in what way and through which mechanisms the choice made will contribute to achieving the desired outcome.

The definition of “decision” can thus be clarified — not redefined! — as follows:

A “decision” is a choice not fully substantiated to contribute to achieving a desired outcome.

In practice there are plenty of decisions made which come without any substantiation — as decision making is often regarded a prerogative not requiring any substantiation. More often a decision is a choice with a nontransparent, ambiguous and or incomplete substantiation. The effect remains the same: risk is increased. Bearing in mind that a substantiation is always made in relation to (achieving) a desired outcome, and skipping over the many gradations in which a choice may or may not be fully substantiated, a “decision” is — for short — an unsubstantiated choice.  


Surely not all decisions increase risk (we would know by now)

Actually, yes, all decisions increase risk. That this may sound puzzling, or ridiculous, has many reasons. For one, not everything that is called a decision in everyday life strictly follows the dictionary definition of when something is a decision. Many “decisions” are in fact substantiated choices, or choices made in absence of a desired outcome (if you have to pick the color of a pawn in a board game you have to make a choice, not a decision).

More importantly, increasing the risk doesn’t mean the risk will also occur. In our professional lives we make many educated guesses which technically may be decisions (as we can’t fully substantiate them) but which are still based on our experience and which we get right more often than not. Decisions may increase risk we do something that will not contribute to achieving our desired outcome, but in those areas where we are experts-of-sorts this increase may be small and the risk may not occur.

Then, if the risk does occur, it may happen so long after the decision made that we no longer make the link between the two. If we do we will find ways to not feel bad about it. We did the best we could do, we can’t be blamed.

Finally, as making decisions can be status-affirming, and give us the enjoyable feeling of control in what is — by definition — a non-transparent situation, decision making can feel empowering or liberating or both. That may be another part of the reason why we don’t know decisions increase risk — we often don’t want to know.


But there is simply no time to avoid decisions!

In organisations which operate with hierarchical decision making those who have to make decisions are asked to deal with all sorts of issues which need to be resolved. Managers tend to have to work very hard to be in meetings and to try to take in as much information as they can to be able to make informed decisions. Many decisions must also be taken rapidly. People may be waiting for a final word. Delays may also result in a competitive disadvantage. So, in practice, there is no way around making decisions!

It is certainly true that organisations will be forced into making decisions, for many reasons (see also later in this chapter). Not all decisions can be avoided. Time is often critical. All the more so when you don’t know where to find what expertise, and whether it is actually available to you. The point to be made here is that there is a lot that can be done to minimise the number of decisions. Then there is also a lot that can be done to minimise the risk-increase for those decisions which can’t be avoided.

The methods that follow from DFS, such as e.g. DF Management, create the conditions to optimally utilise the available expertise with the aim to 1) replace as many decisions as possible with substantiated choices, 2) to have experts make the decisions which cannot be avoided (making substantiated assumptions instead), and 3) to identify and treat decisions made as risk and consider them for Risk Management.  


What about the decision making industry?

If decision making is to be avoided, then what is an entire industry of researchers, consultancy firms, gurus and book publishers working on “making better and smarter decisions” doing? What is it they are promoting? What is it they are failing to see?

The raison d’etre of the decision making industry is precisely this: decision making is perceived as a risky business. But their solutions are based on assumptions which are firmly rooted in the past. In short, they take as a starting point the existence of hierarchical decision making, recognise that human beings are very poor at making objective decisions because of countless decision making biases, and then propose ways to help the decision maker in navigating this treacherous path. But no amount of consulting or support will make an expert out of an appointed decision maker.

More on the decision making industry in the Appendix.


Identifying a decision

Before continuing with alternatives to decision making and the various causes of decision making a quick reminder of how to distinguish between a choice and a decision.

A “decision” is now identified by the following elements:

  1. Choice (multiple possible outcomes)
  2. A desired outcome (something is given careful thought in the context of an aim that is to be achieved)
  3. Lack of (a full) substantiation how the choice will contribute to achieving the desired outcome

When all three elements are present a “decision” has been made, and the risk the aim will not be achieved has subsequently been increased.

When there is nothing to choose between, there is no decision to be made. When there is no aim to be considered, then a choice is simply a choice. When a choice has been substantiated to contribute to achieving an aim, then any formal action attached to it to may be labeled as an “approval”, a “go-ahead” or an “authorisation”.

One question which will be addressed later in this chapter is the following: when we call an unsubstantiated choice a “decision”, then what to call a substantiated choice?

If you want to read the rest of the report download the PDF file (or send us an email).

Remaining sections:

  • The alternatives to decision making
    • Transparency
    • Approvals
    • Resolts
  • When decisions cannot be avoided
    • Reasons why decisions cannot always be avoided
    • Who is to make decisions?
  • The profound consequences of clarifying “decision”
  • Three types of decision making
  • Right and wrong decisions
  • Appendix:
    • Why is there a decision making industry if decisions need to be avoided?  

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