How to make big choices

Should I get married or not? What do I want to do with my career? Should our company change its business model completely? What are we going to do with Tegel airport in Berlin once it is closed? How to tackle climate change? These are all highly complex, once-in-a-lifetime decisions. Steven Johnson wrote a highly interesting book about how to make decisions like that, and I am pretty convinced we can all learn from that.

For those who don‘t know Johnson: The American writes about the intersection of science, technology and philosophy. He shot to fame with ‘Everything Bad Is Good For You‘, about the usefulness of popular culture. But also ‚Where Good Ideas Come From‘ is highly recommendable reading, explaining how creativity can be triggered.

In the recently published ‚Farsighted‘ he explores decision-making processes. One of the main examples he uses is the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. When Barack Obama decided to attack the suspected compound, it was the end of a thorough, structured eighteen-month process. Let‘s just resist any comparison to the current American president.
So what could a thorough process look like? Everybody in their life probably already made decisions by creating two scenarios and then pros-and-cons lists for each of them. Johnson explains this has actually been the most common process for a long time, but it is also structurally flawed. Mainly because it is too binary: By selecting only two options, we limit ourselves too much and we don‘t see all the other possibilities.

Unique decisions
He explains in great detail what makes these big decisions unique: There are for example usually lots of variables in play. There are lots of different possibilities to move forward. There are varying degrees of uncertainty. Conflicting objectives. And human failures, such as cognitive bias.
Johnson pleads for a thorough full-spectrum analysis, mapping out the current situation and all possible options. Let‘s just take Tegel airport in Berlin as an example: A huge green space close to the city center, that will be open for redevelopment. Plans have already been drafted, but I would be highly surprised if there has been a thorough and open process to map all the options, ranging from ecological impact to new business centers to housing, a new Hertha BSC stadium and public transport connections. To just name a few of the pawns on the chessboard.
The writer also has many tips to improve the quality of the mapping. Increasing the diversity of the group is a great start. Using charrettes (small group gatherings to explore possibilities) is another.
For the final decision, he lists a whole range of methods. Obama ran simulations for example, where they rebuild Bin Laden‘s compound on a military base on a 1:1 scale not only to exercise but also to explore hidden problems. You can also use scenario plans (basically stories) to make the options more vivid. And of course the devil‘s advocate-method, where you wonder why your plans could fail. He calls these premortems, or red teams in a military context.

No worries, he also knows that in the end it is often not a mathematical decision and it comes down to human instinct. But for both personal and professional decisions, and I believe these two are often interconnected, he provides an extremely insightful overview.
For me personally for example it has been very useful in the last two months. Whilst traveling through Central America, I had plenty of time to think about my future options.
But actually I moved forward in a very structured way. I started with formulating my personal mission, based on a book by management guru Stephen Covey by the way. That mission is more or less my compass: I want to keep looking for new impulses (experiences, people, wisdom) and never repeat myself (the real version is a bit longer, but this is the main thread).
From then on I used elements from Steven Johnson‘s book. I asked friends to comment on my mission (=diversity) and whether I had any blind spots (=uncertainty). One of my friends for example advised me to not take radical, irreversible decisions too quickly. Johnson calls this ‚downstream flexibility‘, where you can adjust your course later on. For example renting a place in the first year instead of buying. In business life we call this a Minimally Viable Product (MVP).

Based on my compass and the options I saw I started to develop four scenarios, to make everything more tangible and down-to-earth for myself. These need not be complete novels, in my case these are bullet-lists of to-do‘s.
The scenarios were:

  • – Berlin-as-a-base: work from Berlin, find a holiday home in sunnier parts of Europe and work from there 2-3 months a year
  • – 50/50 scenario: work parttime in Berlin, and the rest as a freelance consultant for innovation from Lisbon
  • – Lisbon scenario: move to the Lisbon area in a year and with some saved money start several own businesses with several income streams
  • – Latin America scenario: move to Guadalajara or similar in 2020 and find a job at a multinational company

The important thing is to just dream, to consider all the options. These scenarios are not set in stone. Actually I keep on tweaking them, and keep changing my preference (this is the human instinct-part…). But as long as I don‘t need to make a choice, I keep my options open. And I am continuously asking myself (=blind spots) whether I missed things and should change my tactic.

Key learning
But the most important thing for me is that I have the feeling I at last have a structured, thorough way of plotting and contemplating all the options. Which scenario to take remains a gut feeling-decision. But if I had done this in 2012 before I moved to Berlin, it would have been much easier.
That is why you should read this book as well. It just makes things easier.

P.s. for those who want to be time-efficient, I have a summary of the book. If interested just send me a mail. And if you have even more spare time: I infrequently write about economy and technology subjects on this blog.