Further Thoughts On Decision Making

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it” ― Yogi Berra

We are always confronted with decisions, or forks in the road. I last wrote about Decision Making here from a process point of view, but have always felt that every decision I’ve ever observed or participated in (alone, group, or organizational) suffered from the influence of at least one person’s residual baggage.

This past week while traveling, I developed a rare, near migraine headache late at night. My wife recommended one of her headache pills which have worked for her for nearly thirty years. I took the pill, which kicked in soon thereafter, leading to another unexpected learning experience.

The pill comes with three main ingredients, which in my case led to three results:

-the aspirin, intended to address the headache directly, did nothing;

-the caffeine, intended to increase blood flow, merely made me more wide awake at 3:00 am;

-the last ingredient, intended to support the other two, made me sufficiently OCD to sense not only the headache, but every crease in the sheets and every out of place hair on my entire body.

Sensing this fork in my night was an opportunity, I decided it was time to write.  At least until the headache went away, which it eventually did.


Everyone deals with decision-making, and everyone has baggage.

The Baggage

Somewhere in what follows is a major part of the baggage affecting our decision-making:

-Fear of Failure, due to real experiences in making what we (or others) perceived as a bad decision.  This may also typically include one or more of the following:

-Fear of Loss of Time, and having to start over;

-Fear of Loss of Stuff, having to pay the price of replacing valuable materials and things (especially the added value others have already generated);

-Fear of Loss of Relationship, in disappointing others whose approval we need or desire; and lastly

-Fear of Loss of Face, embarrassment before a wider audience.

I posted here about the importance of Loss of Face (the need to Save Face) as it manifests itself in a multitude of other cultures, but the area of making decisions is where it seems to me to make itself most evident in western culture.

(If you look carefully, you can see the above Baggage is the result of applying the Three Universal Questions at the fork in the road, and choosing the least costly or painful route out.)


My early training was as a scientist, and at the core of this was the understanding that we needed to be 110% sure about our results and conclusions before we would risk putting our names on a publication that would be available for scrutiny forever. As a result, we double checked results, designed experiments to affirm results, and sought consistency with what others had published before us.

I had to learn to stifle that trained behavior when I transitioned into the business world. Here time was now a factor, as well as the different metrics we used to measure (and evaluate) performance. Most people I was exposed to espoused the mantra,

-In business, you have to learn to make decisions with just half of the information.

This was my first clue that the response of many people (especially leaders) in the world to the reality of incomplete or missing information was/is simply, “whatever.”

I had baggage. My training said I needed 100% of the information; my circumstances dictated that decisions needed to be made with much less.

So, I adjusted. I wheedled reality. I decided that there was missing information in the mantra about Missing Information. It was better understood as,

-In business, you have to learn to make decisions with just half of the information, but you reserve the right to change/modify the decision when you discover what’s missing.

The key word is “discover,” because that implies you are actively looking for missing information or actively observing when it shows up. Unfortunately, the reality is that not everyone who has eyes actually ‘sees.’

The Effect of Baggage on Decision-Making

Simply put, because we rarely have all the information to help make our decision and we often think we are stuck with making the decision, we let the negative consequences (above) of a bad or weak decision have more priority than they are worth. We believe we are stuck on the negative sum side of the Behavior Curve (Page 3), and act to minimize further losses.

This feeling is heavily reinforced by our parenting – how our parents responded to us and how we respond to our children’s “decisions.” It is reinforced by cultural groups (family, clan, tribe) for members whose behaviors take them to the margins of their cultural “norms.” It is also reflected in how organizations respond to “failure” within an organization.

Thomas Edison, when asked how he continued experimenting through so many laboratory failures, responded,

“I haven’t failed. I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

To overcome the baggage related to decision-making, we need to do three things. First, we need to recognize which one (or more) of the Losses is working against us. Second, we need to choose to minimize these (reduce their importance). And third, we need to displace them with a higher priority on the potential positive outcomes.

Put another way, we need to decide that the pleasure of success will be greater than the pain of failure, and more probable. This is choosing to position ourselves in the positive sum side of the Behavior Curve (Page 3).

Edison is a perfect example of someone who identified a gain (what he learned from his experiments) that displaced a loss (the sense of failure). And he certainly wasn’t concerned about Stuff or Time.

This is also another valuable statement on recognizing the need for continuous learning in life, whether through our own experiences or learning vicariously through the successes and failures of others.

Much of this accumulated baggage is due to missing out on being taught the process of decision-making and the importance of missing information.

One of my favorite classes I taught in college was Management, and I often sought unusual ways to “stick” a particular concept. One of my favorites was pairing up students and giving each pair a children’s 25-piece puzzle. I took them through four “exercises,”

Round 1: Assemble the puzzle. (This was the attempt, mostly successful, to set them up for success with what followed.)

Round 2: Now, turn the puzzle box cover over (i.e., no picture), and reassemble the puzzle.

Round 3: Now, with the box still turned over, turn over each puzzle piece and reassemble the puzzle from the backside, i.e., upside down.

Round 4: Now, pair up with another team and completely mix together the two sets of upside down puzzle pieces. Split them in two parts, and then as individual teams try to assemble as much of a ‘puzzle’ as you can using the pieces upside down.

Then turn the ‘puzzle’ over and observe your results.

I took this approach because in a 50-minute class there is not enough time to demonstrate “seeking the missing information.” I had to start with all the information and then selectively remove portions. It turned out to be fun (especially for the open enrollment students, but that is a story for another time), and the humor worked to anchor the lesson on decision-making when dealing with missing information, especially when Snow White ended up with Donald Duck’s head.

Suggested Response

Find the win.  Then move to the bright (positive sum) side of the Behavior Curve, which means walk away from the baggage (negative sum, dark) side.

Next: Conflict Resolution


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 06: Incomplete Information, 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, 09: Doing, 14: Behavior, 15: Baggage, Career and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Further Thoughts On Decision Making

  1. Marvin Smith says:

    Thank you, Jim!

    I especially appreciated this quote from the opening:

    “…every decision I’ve ever observed or participated in (alone, group, or organizational) suffered from the influence of at least one person’s residual baggage.”


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