Sustainable Decision Making

When it comes to decision making, deciding how to decide is the most decisive factor.


Pick a decision that you need to make right now. Are you going to decide by yourself? Ask for advice? Let your mom decide? Or debate with your management team for hours until consensus is reached?


We answer this intuitively, and when our intuition fails we end up with less time, less energy, and more frustration.


You can remain decision fatigued, or deliberately manage your brain energy. If you choose the latter, this article is for you.


Sustainable Decision Making


Decision fatigue is simple:

  • Brain energy is a valuable and depleting resource

  • The decision making process converts brain energy into decisions

  • As we make more decisions our brain energy drops, making us tired, demotivated, and bad at decision making. This is decision fatigue

Sustainable decision making is about managing your brain energy. There are two ways to optimize your decision making process to burn less and output more:

  • Demand reduction - If you make fewer decisions you’ll use less energy

  • Efficiency - if you reduce the energy it takes to make a single decision you’ll use less energy overall

Just like environmental sustainability, the concept is simple, however achieving it is not so simple. But it’s worthwhile enough to try.


4 Methods of Decision Making


I came across the 4 methods in Crucial Conversations (read it) and liked it but couldn’t tell why. I slowly discovered that it is the tool I’ve been looking for to achieve sustainable decision making in my life.


This concept breaks down this question: Who’s involved in the decision and in what way?

  1. Command. One person takes command over the decision

  2. Consult. One person takes command but consults others for input

  3. Vote. The relevant people to the decision vote

  4. Consensus. The relevant people debate and argue until consensus is reached

From one to four, the methods go from highly efficient to highly inefficient. To increase sustainability, we want to choose the most efficient method that is applicable.


Let’s dive in.


Command


Command is when one person commands the decision. Command is ultra efficient and is best suited for situations where the stakes are low and input or buy-in from others doesn't matter much. Most decisions in life can be made in this way. You can use command in two ways; command the decision yourself or give command to someone else.


Command in Business

Leaders make two mistakes when using Command.


The first mistake is to take command instead of giving command. You are rarely the best person to make a decision because most decisions are contained in a specific area. You’ve hired great people to do something better than yourself. Give them Command.


The second mistake is to Consult others instead of fully giving them Command. Why are you consulting your marketing manager about marketing matters? Give command and let them do their job.


When I personally realized this and gave more Command I noticed a few things:

  • Decision quality did not suffer at all

  • My people were more motivated, because they craved the ownership

  • I became less exhausted (by making fewer decisions)

Command in Life

To use command more in life it helps to realize two things. One, you know the people you love very well to make great decisions for them. Two, most life decisions are inconsequential.


Thinking of what to have for dinner or what to do this weekend? Just decide and let your partner know (or vice versa). It’s better to do something good with more energy than do the perfect thing while being exhausted from deciding.


I never ask my wife what she wants for dinner anymore. I know what she likes and when she craves something (pizza) she’ll be sure to tell me. I hope she reads this and stops asking me what I want for dinner.


Consult


Consult is when one person commands the decision but collects input from others first. Consult increases the quality of decisions, as well as buy-in from others, at the cost of draining the brain energy of others.


Many people use consult by default for two bad reasons:

  • They are lazy and want others to think for them

  • They overvalue the impact of having multiple perspectives

The way to avoid both of these is to first ask yourself “what is the specific contribution this specific person is going to have on this decision?” Often the answer is none.


Consult when you need to, but not by default.


Consult In Business

My wife taught me a lesson from medicine that stuck with me. You never order a lab test that is not going to impact treatment. Translating this to decision making, you realize that 90% of the time 90% of people involved in a decision have no meaningful impact on the decision.


Always be deliberate about involving the minimal set of people to decide. 90% of the time you’ll realize that this set is a single person and that it is not you.


Finally, don’t confuse being informed with being consulted. Being part of the decision making just to know what decision was made and why is a very wasteful way to stay informed.


Consult In Life

Let’s say that you’re deciding between studying medicine or computer science. Turns out that people who have made this decision in the past can predict your future happiness better than you can (there’s legit research about this that I failed to dig up)


You should definitely use Consult for important life decisions but follow these 3 rules:

  • Only do it for consequential decisions

  • Only consult people who have faced this decision in their past

  • At the end of the day decide for yourself


For 3 years, my wife and I used to live 1-hour flight away from each other. It made sense to me but people with good lasting relationships told us that we should move in together. I regret not listening to those with experience and spending 3 years making myself and my wife less happy than we could’ve been.


Vote


Vote is only useful for inconsequential decisions that influence multiple people equally, and where most options are good enough. Don’t be tempted to vote on big decisions or you’ll get mediocre results, as is demonstrated by modern government.


Before resulting to Consensus, consider using Vote.


Vote in Business

Where to do the next company offsite? How long should the company holiday be? These are decisions that you won’t get wrong by voting and people will feel good weighing in on. You can also discuss them and reach consensus, but that would be a waste of brain energy.


Don’t be tempted to vote on consequential decisions. You need your strongest person to own the decision, see the full picture, and make painful tradeoffs. You can’t vote on a company strategy or a firing decision.


Vote in Life

Where to go out to eat? What board game to play? You finally get together with your friends and this is what you spend time discussing. Nobody cares that much and spending time making decisions is not what you get together for. Vote and move on.


Don’t be tempted to vote on topics that someone deeply cares about. The right to vote doesn’t make you any happier if the outcome is one that you deeply dislike.


My wife and I have a system where we each vote on “how much do you care about this decision from 1-10?” The one of us who cares most makes the decision. I guess that this is our way to use Command but with the benefits of Vote.


Consensus


Consensus is terrible. It is a sure way to waste a lot of energy and time for multiple people. The reason consensus exists is that some decisions simply can’t be made in any other way. These are consequential irreversible decisions that impact multiple people equally.


My only tip for consensus is to use it only when you have to, using it by default is too draining. When you do, align on the decision making process first. As always, involve the minimal number of people that must be there.


In Business

Most consequential and irreversible decisions in business should be resolved with Consult. The only exceptions are fundamental questions that no one person owns. For example, selling/closing the company, mass layoffs, changing the company direction, etc.


Distinguishing Consult from Consensus is hard and something I’m actively trying to implement. A good place to start is to always have an explicit (and single) owner for any decision. If you can’t define an owner that might be a sign that you need to use Consult.


In Life

You get the drift by now. Deciding where to live? What house to buy? Whether to have children or not? Ensure that the people who are impacted by such decisions are fully in consensus.


When my wife and I (with the full involvement from our parents or course) were planning our wedding, we couldn't decide whether to have a small wedding (my camp) or a big one (her camp). After lots of discussions it was clear that my camp will enjoy a big wedding while their camp will have eternal regrets if we had a small one. We reached a consensus to have a big wedding.


Fortunately Covid-19 came around and forced us to have a small wedding after all.


Conclusion


We are all daunted by decisions that deplete our brain energy. Sustainable decision making is the idea of investing less of your brain energy in these decisions by both deciding less and deciding more efficiently.


Asking yourself “Who’s involved in the decision and in what way?” is the first step to increase your decision sustainability. And the 4 methods of decision making can help you answer this question correctly instead of randomly.


When faced with a decision, start with the first method (most efficient) and go to the next method (less efficient) only if necessary.

  1. Command - Take (or give) a single person the command over the decision. The vast majority of decisions can be made just fine by a single person

  2. Consult - Take (or give) command while making sure to consult with others. This is useful for consequential decisions where the input of others, as well as their buy-in, actually matters

  3. Vote - Have multiple people decide on their own and then vote on it. Use this for decisions that impact others the same as yourself, and you have multiple good options to choose from

  4. Consensus - Don’t use this unless you have to. Only consequential irreversible decisions that greatly affect multiple people should leverage Consensus as it is the most wasteful method


Decision fatigue or sustainable decision making? The decision is on you.


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