How to make decisions when opinions abound and facts are scarce?
In a recent conversation I was asked how I would handle an environment in which there are a lot of opinions and little facts to make decisions. Would I wait to gather the facts? How long is it safe to wait? What would I do to manage the divergent opinions in the absence of facts?
I have been thinking about my answer and how I have applied that thinking to other areas of my life. I will try to distill it here and in the process I expect to organize my ideas better and perhaps find flaws or solidify some beliefs. If after reading this you feel like sharing your thoughts on the topic with me, I would be dyingly curious to know what they are.
First, let’s talk about decisions
When I heard the question and context, my first reaction was to create a separate space for decisions. Why? Because there are plenty of situations in which people have all the data but make no decisions and remain in an eternal limbo. I find that such limbo is an energy drainer from people and teams. Energy that can otherwise be channeled into other topics where there is more clarity. In other words, whether we rely on one type of input or the other will have no impact if we get stuck in indecisiveness.
Facts are a safer path
Overall, I believe it is safer to make decisions based on facts than based on opinions. While that is not always possible, it is very effective. Why? Because when you make decisions you are trying to generate actions to get to some outcomes. If you start from facts, you are starting from a common ground, as facts are generally separate from any single individual or group. This should make it easier for everyone to take the expected actions. It is also easier with facts to understand what works or what doesn’t and decide how to iterate moving forward. With opinions it gets more personal and less effective, with more resources wasted in the process.
Of course, there are always exceptions. You might be in a situation where you have no facts, so you have to place a bet. In this case, the role of the decision continues to be more important, but there are a couple of things to consider.
Risk, investment and outcome are the question
What are the outcomes you want to get to with your decisions? How quickly do you want to get there? What are the limits you have in terms of resources to invest in those actions? What risks are you willing to take and which ones do you want to avoid at all costs? All of this informs whether you take the time to gather facts or if you take quick action, or a mix of both. Gather some facts, and assume the rest.
Discipline and diligence are the answer
In the end, how you proceed with your decisions should not change whether you start your journey from facts or opinions, as long as you have the discipline to make clear decisions and apply the diligence to record and analyze the results of those decisions, you can get to where you want more effectively. If, on the other hand, you have amazing facts, make a decision, but do not monitor the results to fundament your next steps, you will be ineffective, anyway. Decisions are usually not conducive to an end result, but rather to the starting point of a new decision to be made.
Here’s a personal life example
We were recently buying an apartment that had a fireplace built in it. In the process of applying for a bank loan we learned that fireplaces need to be registered legally to be used. That is a fact. The fireplace in the apartment was not registered. It had to be registered. Another fact. We had to decide whether to look for a new place or buy this one and invest resources (time, money) on the registration. We really liked the place and did not enjoy the idea of spending more time looking for another one (it had been over a year which was too long for us), so we decided to gather data on the specifics of fireplace registration. In the process we got a lot of opinions. Those who thought it will be a quick process. Those that thought that because the building is relatively new it should be an easy process. Those who had no idea but suggested we take it anyway. In the end we decided to draw two scenarios. One scenario assumed what it would cost to remove the fireplace if the registration did not go through because the place did not meet the legal requirements. The other scenario assumed the registration went forward but it took more time and money. This lead us to propose an amendment to the purchase contract where the seller would take the responsibility of registering the fireplace including the costs and procedures. An amount of money from the total sales price would be withheld for a period of time until this was achieved or otherwise return to us who would take care of the issue. With this decision we were setting clear what inputs we were ready to provide and what outcome we wanted: we end up with a registered fireplace sooner or later, and preferably without putting in too much time or money additional to those provided when buying the apartment.
It has been two months since we bought the place and over a month since we moved in. The fireplace registration is not yet done. The process has been longer and more complicated than everybody expected. Yet, we have not spent a single extra euro and only a small amount of time in signing papers or replying emails. We have not used the fireplace either, but that was not a priority for us. The time and money we have spent has gone to where we wanted it to: making the new place feel like home. We gathered facts and set the limits to the risks we wanted to take, and made decisions based on those two inputs. So far, no outcome, but a currently satisfying situation.
Finally, a more generic example applicable to work life
As I am in the job search mental state, here is a briefer example with that context in mind.
Say you are a company and you make the decision to hire someone. That will bring changes to the organization. Depending on how effective and efficient you want that person’s impact to be, you also have to decide how you onboard them. If you onboard them, you have to decide whether they are doing a good job or not. If you decide they are, you need to find a way to praise them and recognize them so they repeat the wanted behaviours. If they are not, you need to decide if you will support them in improving or part ways. Decision outcomes create new decisions to be made.
The same would apply if you are the person joining the organization. How will you prepare yourself? How will you change your plan as you learn about the new organization? How will you get feedback to understand if the expectations are being met? And so on.
For now, I decide to end this post. Again, if you have an opinion (or fact :)) about it, share away. I would be thrilled to hear different perspectives.