Making decisions in the real world

IN a letter to the English chemist Joseph Priestley, the 18th-century American polymath Benjamin Franklin set out a rule for making decisions: “Divide half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns, writing over the one Pro and over the other Con. I put down under the different headings short lists of the different motives, that at different times occur to me for and against the measure. When I have got them all together in one view, I endeavour to estimate the respective weights.”

Charles Darwin attempted to follow Franklin’s Rule. He set out the pros and cons of marriage in two opposing columns. A wife would provide “children, companionship, the charms of music and female chit-chat”; “an object to be beloved and played with”, in this respect “better than a dog anyhow”. But Darwin also recognised disadvantages; “being forced to visit relations, and to bend in every trifle”, “the loss of freedom to go where one liked”. If we look at Darwin’s list today, the cons seem to outweigh the pros.

But neither Franklin nor Darwin really made decisions that way, and both understood that reality perfectly well. Franklin elsewhere wrote “so convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable person, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one had a mind to do.” And Darwin scrawled across the bottom of his list: “It is intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee” followed by “marry – marry – marry”.

The next year he wedded Emma Wedgwood and the couple had 10 children. In the business world, we are encouraged to follow Franklin’s Rule. We should define our objectives, enumerate alternatives, and measure the contribution of each potential course of action to these objectives. We pretend to do this in many formal processes, from career appraisals to risk assessment. But mostly, we are following Franklin’s later advice – finding a reason for what we have in mind to do, and rationalising decisions which have already been made on other grounds.

These grounds are obscured by the spurious formality of structures based on Franklin’s Rule. In any complex environment our objectives are high-level and loosely defined. What we want is something like a fulfilling life, a complex mixture of personal and professional achievements not containable by checklists. To do that, we need to translate these high-level objectives into specific goals – get a better job, find more time for personal life, and then into specific actions – call a head-hunter, block out time in the diary.

Our objectives are multi-faceted, the environment is complex, constantly changing – and is changed by our interaction with it. Our understanding is imperfect, and there is always uncertainty – the things we don’t know we don’t know.

The connections between action and outcome are often opaque and unexpected. That is why the attainment of complex goals is necessarily oblique. It requires adaptation and iteration, in which we mostly learn by doing, and achieve what we want not by a directed plan but through an oblique process in which we learn what it is we want through the business of achieving it.

John Kay’s latest book, Obliquity, is out now