30 January 2019 – This is not a textbook on decision making.
Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most does cover most of the elements of state-of-the-art decision making, but it’s not a true textbook. If he’d really wanted to write a textbook, its author, Steven Johnson, would have structured it differently, and would have included exercises for the student. Perhaps he would also have done other things differently that I’m not going to enumerate because I don’t want to write a textbook on state-of-the-art decision making, either.
What Johnson apparently wanted to do, and did do successfully, was lay down a set of principles today’s decision makers would do well to follow.
Something he would have left out, if he were writing a textbook, was the impassioned plea for educators to incorporate mandatory decision making courses into secondary-school curricula. I can’t disagree with this sentiment!
A little bit about my background with regard to decision-theory education: ‘Way back in the early 2010s, I taught a course at a technical college entitled “Problem Solving Theory.” Johnson’s book did not exist then, and I wish that it had. The educational materials available at the time fell woefully short. They were, at best, pedantic.
I spent a lot of class time waving my hands and telling stories from my days as a project manager. Unfortunately, the decision-making techniques I learned about in MBA school weren’t of any help at all. Some of the research Johnson weaves into his narrative hadn’t even been done back then!
So, when I heard about Johnson’s new book, I rushed out to snag a copy and devoured it.
As Johnson points out, everybody is a decision maker every day. These decisions run the gamut from snap decisions that people have to make almost instantly, to long-term deliberate choices that reverberate through the rest of their lives. Many, if not most, people face making decisions affecting others, from children to spouses, siblings and friends. Some of us participate in group decision making that can have truly global ramifications.
In John McTiernan’s 1990 film The Hunt for Red October, Admiral Josh Painter points out to CIA analyst Jack Ryan: “Russians don’t take a dump, son, without a plan. Senior captains don’t start something this dangerous without having thought the matter through.”
It’s not just Russians, however, who plan out even minor actions. And, senior captains aren’t the only ones who don’t start things without having thought the matter through. We all do it.
As Johnson points out, it may be the defining characteristic of the human species, which he likes to call Homo prospectus for their ability to apply foresight to advance planning.
The problem, of course, is the alarming rate at which we screw it up. As John F. Kennedy’s failure in the Bay of Pigs invasion shows, even highly intelligent, highly educated and experienced leaders can get it disastrously wrong. Johnson devotes considerable space to enumerating the taxonomy of “things that can go wrong.”
So, decision making isn’t just for leaders, and it’s easier to get it wrong than to do it right.
Enumerating the ways it can all go disastrously wrong, and setting out principles that will help us get it right are the basic objectives Johnson set out for himself when he first decided to write this book. To wit, three goals:
Convince readers that it’s important;
Warn folks of how easily it can be done wrong; and
Give folks a prescription for doing it right.
Pursuant to the third goal, Johnson breaks decision making down into a process involving three steps:
Mapping consists of gathering preliminary information about the state of the Universe before any action has been taken. What do we have to work with? What options do we have to select from? What do we want to accomplish and when?
Predicting consists of prognisticating, for each of the various options available, how the Universe will evolve from now into the foreseeable (and possibly unforeseeable) future. This is probably the most fraught stage of the process. Do we need a Plan B in case of surprises? As Sean Connery’s “Mac” character intones in Jon Amiel’s 1999 crime drama, Entrapment: “Trust me, there always are surprises.”
Deciding is the ultimate finish of the process. It consists of finally choosing between the previously identified alternatives based on the predicted results. What alternative is most likely to give us a result we want to have?
An important technique Johnson recommends basing your decision-making strategy on is narrative. That explicitly means storytelling. Johnson supplies numerous examples from both fiction and non-fiction that help us understand the decision-making process and help us apply it to the problems we face.
He points out that double-blind clinical trials were the single most important technique that advanced medicine from quackery and the witch-doctor’s art to reliable medical science. It allowed trying out various versions of medical interventions in a systematic way and comparing the results. In the same way, he says, fictional storytelling, allows us to mentally “try out” multiple alternative versions of future history.
Through storytelling, we explore various possibilities and imagine how they might turn out, including the vicissitudes of Shakespeare’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” without putting in the time and effort to try them out in reality, and thereby likely suffering “the fuss of mass destruction and death.”
Johnson suggests that’s why humans evolved the desire and capacity to create such fictional narratives in the first place. “When we read these novels,” he says, “ … we are not just entertaining ourselves; we are also rehearsing for our own real-world experiences.”
Of course, while “deciding” is the ultimate act of Johnson’s process, it’s never the end of the story in real life. What to do when it all goes disastrously wrong is always an important consideration. Johnson actually covers that as an important part of the “predicting” step. That’s when you should develop Mac’s “Plan B pack” and figure out when to trigger it if necessary.
Another important consideration, which I covered extensively in my problem solving course and Johnson starts looking at ‘way back in “mapping” is how to live with the aftermath of your decision, whether it’s a resounding success or a disastrous failure. Either way, the Universe is changed forever by your decision, and you and everyone else will have to live in it.
So, your ultimate goal should be deciding how to make the Universe a better place in which to live!