Replace Rapid Decision-Making with Rapid Option-Making

Decision-Making Framework

Replace Rapid Decision-Making with Rapid Option-Making

Should you choose what you know, a decision making process that will deliver something you expect (‘exploit’) or should you pursue something you are less sure about that offers more options and potentially better outcomes (‘explore’)?
By Jeff Dickson


Remember the old game show “Let’s Make A Deal”? Me either, but I’ve seen the reruns:-) The format of Let's Make a Deal involves selected members of the studio audience, referred to as "traders," making deals with the host. In most cases, a trader will be offered something of value and given a choice of whether to keep it or exchange it for a different item. Computer scientists, like Tom Griffiths, might classify this dilemma as the “Exploit, Explore Tradeoff”: Should you choose what you know, a decision making process that will deliver something you expect (‘exploit’) or should you pursue something you are less sure about that offers more options and potentially better outcomes (‘explore’)?

Of course, the concept of choice is not a computer question and it’s not just for gameshows. It’s a human question that we face everyday in big and small ways. But it’s also an important leadership question. The pressure of time can sometimes cause leaders to focus primarily on error avoidance, preferring an unnecessary autocratic approach to decision-making. In effect, this is the leader exploiting their knowledge base without much if any input or exploration from their team and employees. But, this makes sense, doesn’t it? As a leader in a rapid-paced environment, you are more experienced and qualified to make the call. And, as the axiom goes, "an ounce of intuition trumps a pound of pondering”. Or does it? What about the additional pressures of quality, innovation, and collaboration that are demanded in today’s rapid business context as well? How can we make room for these additional demands? 


Consider, replacing rapid decision-making with rapid option-making—a leadership skill that both exploits your expertise and explores potentially better outcomes. In other words, rather than handing out marching orders, refer your team to your strategic framework of choice (either based in best-practice or your time-tested experience). Make sure it clearly communicates the critical variables and action steps that your team must consider and set a short period of time for them to deliver options (also known as bounded rationality). By taking the extra time to draw out and share this framework, your are both exploiting your knowledge base and giving your team an opportunity to explore new and better options. Ultimately, in most cases, it’s possible to eliminate the “Exploit, Explore Tradeoff” all together!  


But why a framework? Why not just provide your team with a list of options or an impromptu brainstorm? Simply put, sharing your expertise with a best practice model is far greater than representing decades of experience. Greg Northcraft summarizes it well when he distinguishes the title of “expert" from “experience": "An expert is someone who has a predictive model that works, and so just because you’ve been doing something for a long time doesn’t mean that you have a predictive model that works”. The point in using a tested framework (ie "a model that works"), is that you aren’t just placating your team and appeasing them with false hopes that their novice efforts are helpful. A framework, on the other hand, encourages options and results that are rooted in best practice expertise, even if your team lacks your extensive experience. In addition, the use of a shared framework offers several other benefits over the long term. First, the re-use of the framework will deliver efficiencies as the team becomes more and more comfortable with it. Second, it serves as a shared language and tool set which improves collaboration and culture. Third, a greater degree of confidence and morale is had when you ask your team for rapid options rather than rapid execution.  


Possibly the most overlooked benefit that comes from Rapid Option Making and its use of frameworks, is the power of options itself. Psychology teaches us, that people, animals, shoppers, and corporations all share at least one thing in common—we love options. Why? Simply stated, we like the control. The results of a recent retail study revealed that the availability of 5 options resulted in 30% of consumers purchasing at least one jar of jam, while the sampling station with 24 flavors had a conversion rate of only 3%. While the larger selection attracted more onlookers, the smaller selection actually generated more sales. Oddly enough, animals like options too. In her book, The Art of Choosing, Sheena Iyengar describes research with rats, monkeys, pigeons, and people: 

RPD_Support Illo.002.jpeg
  • Rats were given a choice of a direct path to food or a path that had branches and therefore required choices to be made. Both paths resulted in access to the same food in the same amounts. If all the rats wanted was food, then they should take the short, direct path. But the rats continuously preferred the path with branches.

  • In experiments with monkeys and pigeons, the animals learn to press buttons to get food. If given a choice between one button and multiple buttons, both monkeys and pigeons prefer multiple buttons.

  • In similar research with humans, people were given chips to use at a casino. They could use the chips at a table that had one roulette wheel, or at a table where they could choose from two roulette wheels. People preferred the table with two wheels, even though all the wheels were identical.

But, before we get carried away with rapid-option making, cognitive science suggests we keep the number of options to 6 or less. Further, if this is a framework you would like your team to commit to memory, Gary Klein (research psychologist famous for pioneering in the field of naturalistic decision making) would suggest limiting your framework to 3 moving parts and only 6 steps. Besides, too many options can swing the pendulum in the opposite direction, giving your team the impression that the exploration of options is suddenly more important than delivering on time.