This week a friend of mine posted a question in Facebook about decisions: what do you do when you are faced with a decision, how do you know you pick the “right” fork in the road?

It was somewhat amusing to read the advice and answers (my own included) about how we know we have made a good decision.

Some thought we should just flip a coin, some thought we should do pros and cons lists, and some just said they made a good decision because they did.

Another friend was thinking about a career decision recently and made an Excel sheet that outlined multiple pros and cons in choosing one option or the other.

It was one of the most detailed decision sheets I have seen.

Yet, in retrospect, the assumptions and expectations underlying and attached to the different options did not turn out the way he thought they would.

So all of this has, again, made me reflect on the process in how we make decisions, and what we need to consider when making one.  


Context matters for decision-making

Many of us dream about a framework or a set of guidelines that, if just followed correctly, help us to make right decision every time.

All the management, leadership and strategy books each in fact propose a new better way of making and thinking about decisions.

As someone who researches decision-making, the more I read about different ways and methods to make decisions, the more confused at times I feel about how to make one.

Yet, even if there are decision-making frameworks around that could enable us to follow a particular line of thought and decision, the truth is that I find that many of these do not necessarily address what matters: the context within which that decision is made.

For us to make decisions, it matters immensely who we are, what we value, what we aspire to, and what consequences we see the decisions to bring based on the life experience and the social networks we have.

Therefore, each person and institution has a different set of parameters emerging from the context within which they operate and live.

So how do we recognise and understand what role context plays in how we make decisions?


Invisible insights

In my own research, I find that I can read lots of scientific papers and gain many insights but the best insights come either from a) large scale interview and survey data and b) smaller scale studies that have used interviews to document decision-making practices.

In one of my latest projects, I have been interviewing consultants and practitioners who work in climate adaptation and specifically deal with ecosystem-based adaptation (how to use ecosystems to enable adaptation to climate change).

The insights I am gaining from these interviews are massive and much broader than what I have anticipated from global funding structures and how those dictate often what can and cannot happen on the ground to community level issues in implementation.

All of these insights are essentially about the values and aspirations on how people make decisions, and how these decisions are really context-based and influenced by organisational, individual and community scales.

But much of this information is invisible in many ways because it is in the minds and experiences of people, and embedded in institutional memory.

Their experiences in how decisions have been made and are made, what has influenced a particular decision and driven a particular result, all of that is something that qualitative researchers like myself can uncover.


Who are these stakeholders and does that matter?

I often feel that this is very aligned to the field of climate change adaptation and the range of decision-making tools out there that are supposed to help “ the stakeholder” to choose between different options.

Most of these tools are decision pathways or adaptation pathways that can help individuals and organisations to navigate between different kinds of choices when faced with climate change impacts and risks.

But how do you consider the influence of context in decision-making in adaptation?

How can you apply a generic tool to something that is inherently complex but also very context-specific in that the values, experiences, priorities and aspirations are always going to be very different?

The latest exciting paper on a related topic was published by Lindsey Jones earlier this year in WIREs Climate Change.

Lindsey looks at the different ways such concepts as “resilience” are measured, which frameworks are currently in use, and how subjective measures of resilience (people defining their own resilience) can help us to better understand what decisions they are likely to make, or perceive their capacity to be to make those.

What he points out is that often there is no one-size fits all approach, but rather

“Evaluators should ultimately consider a number of factors before choosing which toolkit to adopt, including: their epistemology of resilience; core objectives for measurement exercises; and resource and data constraints” (Jones, 2018). 

To me, this points out to the need of decision transparency in that whatever toolkits, tools or frameworks we choose to use, we need to also be able to define why we choose one and not the other.

But this again starts from the importance of defining your goals, aspirations and values, and how one framework or method fits in with those.

All too often we look at the options first rather than looking inward first and thinking “does this choice actually align with what I am about or where I need to be”.


Build buffer to have options

Perhaps what has emerged for me as a key factor in decision-making is the importance of buffers.

As Jim Collins and Morten Hansen note in Great By Choice, the most successful companies have always built buffer so that they have flexibility to make decisions.

Often this relates to financial buffers where companies constantly have savings set aside so that they can make decisions according to what is happening in their context of operations.

Having some sort of buffers, whether these are social networks or financial, will expand the decisions that we can take and the options available to us.

The bottom line is that there is no one way of making decisions, and no certainty ever that one decision turns out to be the perfect one.

But as long as you recognise what is driving you, what your aspirations are, and how that particular decision can either strengthen or decrease those, you are off to a good start.