The paradox of the paradox of choice

In today’s workplace the problem is not often that you don’t have options as to what needs fixing or improving. Typically it’s quite the opposite. We are all spoiled for choice.

Enter Barry Schwartz and the introduction of the Paradox of Choice. A good book, by the way, on the impact on consumers in having so many choices.

By having more choices, we tend to find ourselves unable to make a choice. In the world of Projects (especially improvement projects) we are faced with so many choices, how do we prioritise?

Well, mostly we don’t.

People are creatures of habit and defensiveness. We worry so much about possibly making the wrong choice that we analyse these options over and over, from every angle. We ask for briefings, we look at individual benefit profiles, financial appraisals….the list goes on.

What happens next is another layer of paradox.

In wanting to deal with so much information the next step I often see if people ask for more information! So afraid that any decision might be the wrong one many senior managers and executives then ask for new information and models of weighting criteria in order to apparently assist in making the very best decision possible!

Aren’t you exhausted just thinking about this?

When faced with choices the common approach is to assume that there is a perfect choice. To go over and over the list of projects hoping for some inspiration to be clear on what to do in what order.

A philosophical model called “Buridan’s Ass” is a paradox in philosophy, in which a hungry donkey, located at the mid-point between two bales of hay, is frozen in indecision about which way to go and faces starvation; he is unable to move one way or the other. Notably for the purists out there this idea predates Buridan and is found in Aristotles texts…but that may be more information than we need here…

There are a few ways to proceed when faced with the paradox of choice; the abundances of options. I’ll cover only two simple ones that I hope you’ll find useful.

The first is to recognise that while lots of information and variables are relevant, few are really going to matter. The Pareto (or 80:20) principle strikes again! Does it really matter whether everyone likes the idea? Does it really matter whether you can identify the name of the project manager’s cat before you decide? Unlikely.

So just make use of the 2-3 biggest things that make a difference when choosing what to work on first. Do you need to reduce costs right now? Then start the projects that give you the fastest financial returns. Are your teams feeling overworked? Then start he projects that reduce the effort to get things done. Getting a project that matters completed is much better for everyone than spending the next few months trying to work out which is the perfect one to begin. Epictetus the stoic philosopher said that life is finite. We should value each day and that we should remind ourselves that we might die tomorrow. (I wouldn’t suggest that as the opening to a motivational project kickoff speech – but that’s just my opinion…). Get on with something of value today.

But there are too many projects that look equally perfect? The two bales of hay problem. Then just pick either one. Get started. Not every decision is choosing between good and bad. Sometimes they are just choices.

There is value in making sure that you work on the right things. There is no value in rushing to action on projects that you know, or are at least confident, will be a bad idea or add little value.

The key to making choices is not to let the choices become the work itself. We, paradoxically, add to our own difficulties in making decisions by adding considerations that don’t really matter and just make it harder to decide. If we want to complete projects to improve our work environment then why not start with making the process of decision making that much easier. Don’t worry so much and just pick something that makes a positive difference. Over time that will get easier.

Tools like driver trees, benefits logic maps, product breakdown structure and weighted multiparametric analysis are all helpful in making the choices. Just don’t get too caught up in the perfection of it all.

I mean, you’re more capable than a donkey, right? So make hay while the sun shines!

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Nathan Jones