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Making decisions requires mental energy. When your energy is low, 'decision fatigue' sets in and some fairly predictable biases result. 

Too many teams set themselves up to operate in an almost permanently fatigued state. How can you avoid this?

It’s been a long workshop. Two days of ploughing through feature descriptions, prioritising, arguing, re-prioritising. Now we’re into the final straight. 

We’ve finally got our heads around all the options and we’re making the big decisions. Bang, bang, bang. We set out the strategy for the next sprint, and head for the pub. Every exec knows you have to be decisive if you want to succeed…

Problem is, we’ve probably just made a host of bad decisions.

What we’ve just done is drive ourselves into what’s called 'decision fatigue'. There’s a bunch of research coming out to suggest that making decisions requires a lot of mental energy. Every decision you make depletes your available energy, leaving less for the next one.

So all those arguments about the shape of each individual feature have ensured that our decision energy is pretty close to zero just as we’re coming into the big, strategic decisions at the end of the workshop.

When decision energy is low, a couple of fairly predictable biases start to creep in.  

Firstly, there’s a strong tendency to stick with the status quo. With little energy to make a decision, we just go with the default or the “do nothing” option.  

This either creates a bias towards inaction, or else it leaves us at the mercy of whoever defines what the default is. So, by the end of our workshop we were probably a lot less radical and decisive than we thought we were.  

Most good product managers are well aware of this bias. They set the default option to entice you to spend more money on their product. Then they force you make a bunch of decisions early on, so that you’re more likely to revert to accepting the default for everything else.

Secondly, people are more likely to make one-dimensional decisions when they’re fatigued.  

Rather than making thoughtful (and hence energy-depleting) trade-offs between options, we focus on a single factor and steer every decision towards optimising that factor.  

So, instead of carefully balancing time, cost, quality and so on, our workshop probably ended up focusing on just one of these. We simply selected the fastest option, or the cheapest one, or whatever.

Again, you’ve probably seen senior managers in this mode. As they hurry between their back-to-back meetings, trying to appear decisive, they make simplistic, unidimensional decisions. It’s not that they’re idiots, they’ve just got no energy for more nuanced thought.

With this in mind, what can you do to preserve your decision energy, and make better decisions?  

Define your decision strategy up front

Agree how you will make decisions, what process you’ll follow, who you’ll consult, what criteria you’ll use, in a separate session.  

That way you won’t need to spend energy on 'deciding how to decide' when it comes to the actual decision.

Avoid decisions wherever possible

Many decisions can be made by reference to corporate policy and standards. We have branding guidelines, technical standards, etc, precisely so that we don’t have to waste energy on making the same decisions over and over again.  

Unless there’s a particularly good reason to go against the standards, save your energy for more important decisions.

Be prepared to sacrifice

Good decision-makers are prepared to accept “good enough” solutions when they present themselves.  

They don’t expend time and energy exploring multiple options and complex trade-offs when something that works has already been identified. That way they have more energy for the really tough decisions.

Manage your schedule

'Sleep on it' really is good advice, you’ll have a lot more energy after a good night’s sleep and a decent breakfast.

So, for example, you might plan workshops such that you explore options one day and then make the big decisions the next morning, when everyone’s energy has recovered.  

If you can’t wait for the next morning, then at least schedule a break (and a glucose kick).

Keep your options open 

Not every decision needs to be made right now. If a decision can be deferred, then the options may be clearer when you’ve had more time to observe the situation. So you’ll need less energy to make the decision when it does come up.  

Good decision-makers manage decision timing as actively as any other criterion. (Note, however, that it also takes energy to maintain a portfolio of options. Be prepared to close off low-impact decisions quickly, so they don’t consume energy as you continue to monitor them.)

Above all, monitor your decision energy

If it’s low, stop. Take a break. Get a bite to eat. Good facilitators know this.  hey develop a sense for the energy level in the room and pay conscious attention to maintaining that energy.

When it comes to decision-making, good energy is as important as good analysis.

Graham Oakes

Published 1 December, 2011 by Graham Oakes

Graham Oakes helps people untangle complex technology, processes, relationships and governance. He is contributor to Econsultancy.

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Comments (1)

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Dennis James

I think this is a very poignant piece. It is important that decision energy remains high and that leaders are able to capture hearts and minds with their rhetoric in times when decisions have to be made.

over 3 years ago

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