Black and White Decision Making – The Problems of Right/Wrong Framing

(originally published in LinkedIn by the author)

Over the last 15 or so years I’ve regularly run into a faulty decision-making frame. At first it frustrated me because I couldn’t articulate it, but after putting some thought into it I came up with a way to describe it and a simple alternative frame I want to share with you, one that is a lot less intuitive but a lot more real for most of the decisions we make.

Here’s the faulty frame: we have a tendency to label all options for a decision that we need to make either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Typically we view one of the options as ‘right’ and all others as ‘wrong’. There is great simplicity in this. We learn to focus on what is right in school when we take tests or are evaluated. Our brains naturally try to find the right option. We want to do the correct thing after all! It is such a basic question: is this choice the ‘right’ one, or the ‘wrong’ one? So we observe a decision confronting us and we assume it lives in this black and white framing.

In many areas of life this is useful. In the case of morality or the law, you are directly asking what is right and wrong. Stealing is wrong. Perjury is wrong. Murder is wrong. Other times there is a clear right answer, as when someone asks when the Magna Carta was written, or what 2+2 equals. Five is not the right answer to either, it is wrong. Even a question involving directions such as, “Do I go north or south on this highway to get to my destination?” tends to be something that has a right and a wrong answer. There is value in seeking to do the right thing!

Unfortunately, this default ‘right/wrong’ framing can often cause us to over-simplify colorful, complex decisions into black and white ones. If we are thinking about which high priority feature we want to build, or when we should ship a new product, or if we should move a person (and who?) from one team to another to increase the overall chance of a large effort succeeding, then our natural simplification down to one ‘right’ option and a bunch of ‘wrong’ ones limits our conversation and increases the chances we pick poorly. I’ll dive into why I think that happens later, but first I want to talk about an alternative frame. Many of you probably already use this either because of training or intuition, but I’ll talk through it because I have found it easy to stumble back into the right/wrong model without realizing it.

Decision Quality

What I’ve noticed is that for most work-related decisions I encounter, there is a kind of ‘option quality spectrum’ that contains a set of absolutely horrible choices at its worst to the most amazing awesome choices at its best instead of one right decision and a bunch of wrong ones.

B&WDecisions-AwfultoAwesome.png

Both extremes are rarely in play. Most of the time people avoid spending any serious time on awful decisions, and awesome decisions are pretty rare (they tend to take a lot of time to discover and it’s just hard not to have some trade-offs). Most of the time when we are discussing what to do we’re debating options somewhere in the ‘good’ to ‘great’ range. When you drop the idea of ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’ for the decision and instead look at the quality of the options available it improves your chances of making a timely and good decision. Here’s a few reasons I think that is:

  1. When you remove the labels ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, you reduce the fear of being wrong. If we recognize we’re thinking through a couple of great options, it means that those individuals who advocated for an option besides the one we chose did not pick the wrong option and are not themselves wrong. We just chose to go with a different viable option.
  2. It limits the paralysis of trying to find the ‘right’ choice. When I take off the black and white framing of right and wrong, I suddenly realize that a ‘good’ solution may be all I need right now. Sure, I could spend time attempting to come up with an even better option, but do I need to? Maybe not!
  3. It discourages people from shutting out someone else’s idea. If I believe that I have the right idea and all other ideas are wrong, I tend to advocate more vehemently and with less consideration for differing perspectives.
  4. It forces you to think about what your desired end state is. If I have a bunch of people arguing about which option is right, they tend to focus on the options instead of the goal. They explain why the other options are bad and cause problems, and why their option is good. It is likely that the reason a group is debating is because they weight how important those good and bad impacts are differently, not because some of them don’t understand the options. When we recognize that we probably don’t have any perfect option, but we have a bunch of decent ones, it makes us consider what we are trying to achieve. We must align on how we would weight various pros and cons from the perspective of our goal to pick from among several great options.
  5. If you have no good options, removing right/wrong framing could let you know you are likely to struggle no matter what you do. Because you have to think about the quality of the options, rather than just trying to find the ‘right’ one, you sometimes get into situations where there are no awesome, great, good, or even ok options. You have to pick from between poor and awful. Even the best option can leave you with a low chance of success at times.

I listed out some work-related decisions or questions above, I want to list a couple more to drive home that these often don’t have a specific ‘right’ option, instead having a set of different quality options, sometimes with no clear choice.

  • Should I go to this meeting on my calendar?
  • When should I show up to work?
  • What process should our team use?
  • Which customer segment is most important?
  • How could I make my video game more balanced?
  • How do I create a learning environment on my team?
  • What should I do to build a relationship with that other team I depend on?

Note how there are different options for any of these that could vary day to day. Some might have a ‘best’ choice, but others don’t. For each of these questions, there are usually multiple choices that could all be considered viable.

Now, I know a lot of people may be thinking, “I do complex decision analysis! I have even more advanced models for considering what the right choice is! This is amateur stuff!” To this, I would respond that if you are actually looking for the ‘right’ choice rather than the ‘best available’ choice or a ‘timely, decent’ choice, you’re still messing this up. I’ve been in organizations with highly complex models for decision-making, but the reality is that once they ran their analyses, everyone still argued about which decision was the ‘right’ one with the implication being that all other options were wrong. With all their high powered decision analysis, they still wasted a ton of time debating between two or three options that were all an 85% solution and would probably get them where they needed to go.

This isn’t about having a model that examines options or stack ranks them or whatever, it is about the belief that we get to know what choice is/was ‘right’ for any complex decision. We don’t, certainly not before we’ve made it, and honestly not even after.

Success May Have Nothing to do with Your Decision

I want to cover one last reason why I recommend considering options on a quality spectrum rather than as either right or wrong: It encourages humility. We must recognize that there is actually a lot more we don’t know than we do. We won’t ever know if we made the ‘best’ choice possible. Decisions that don’t have a clear right/wrong (amoral, non-factual decisions) are often only made once. You don’t get to make that exact same decision again. The simple act of choosing means the other doors have all closed. Similar situations may arise in the future, but in the world of knowledge work where judgment, intuition, and expertise play a large role in what we choose to do, we only follow one choice through and see the outcome. Because of the uniqueness of each decision, you only get to observe the consequences for the choice you chose. If you had three viable options, that means you only got to observe a third of the possible outcomes.

This is where a correlation-causation fallacy happens. If a decision led to positive outcomes, we tend to believe that things worked out because we picked the option we did. To be fair, this is probably true sometimes. But it is probably false quite a bit. If you had different groups containing capable experts debating with each other about what to do, it is likely that if you had picked another popular choice it may also have worked out, and perhaps even better! But we will never get to see that, we only see the consequence of the decision we picked. So if things improved like we wanted/expected, we pat ourselves on the back, not recognizing that perhaps a better option was on the table. Our confirmation biases light up like crazy, teaching us the wrong lessons about how brilliant we or others are.

Similarly, when something fails we look back and attempt to find out what wrong decisions we made. I’m not saying don’t do this! It is a valuable and instructive exercise! Unfortunately, a common outcome is the assigning of blame for the wrong choice or choices. Be very careful here. It is possible that all the other options that you did not choose would have turned out even worse. You can only speculate, and it is easy to believe something else would have worked out better, but you have to remember there was a reason you did not choose those other options instead! Hindsight is 20/20. Don’t lock in on the decision, lock in on the frame.

Final Thoughts

Avoid the trap of defaulting to right/wrong thinking when making most of your decisions. There is a lot of color to the decisions we make, rarely is our world as black and white as we would like it to be. Keep some humility, hold your options openly, and remember that whether it goes well or poorly, you’ll never know if another choice would have been even better or even worse. Because of this, let yourself, your organization, and your team experiment among the different viable options. Accepting that decisions are complex and colorful will help you become an organization that can have psychological safety, healthy debate, and continuous learning. Taken together this will lead to better decision-making.

Thanks for reading through, hope you were able to take something away from this. Would love comments, and also really curious if other people have found better articulations of this that I can use to help improve decision-making frames when I see the drift towards right/wrong thinking.

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