Choice and complexity


I recently listened to a TedTalk featuring psychologist Barry Schwartz and his thoughts on the “paradox of choice.”  Choice seems like a good thing – the more options we have, the more likely we are to find just the right one that suits us, right? It turns out that having lots of choices doesn’t actually make people happier – it makes us less happy.  Specifically, research shows that the greater the number of choices available to us, the harder it is for us to make a decision (analysis paralysis), and the less satisfied we are with our decision because it is easier for us to imagine alternate options having been better. Further, having many options to choose from results in an escalation of expectations – we have greater expectations that what we do choose will perfectly fulfill our needs and desires.

Ours is a world marked by ever-increasing amounts of information and the speed with which we are expected to process it. This is clearly evidenced in today’s business landscape. In fact, these findings reminded me of research shared by Korn Ferry in a recent webcast that showed that “manages complexity” is among the top eight competencies most correlated with high performance. Managing complexity involves sorting through volumes of data to discern what is important and in using it to make choices and decisions quickly and accurately, often in the face of ambiguity. How much of this information is relevant? What is the proper path to take, which forks and side roads should we pursue? What will be the ramifications of each option? Further, as people rise through an organization, the need for the ability to cut through the weeds and brambles of distracting information in order to make sound and timely decisions becomes increasingly important.

The ability to sift and integrate business intelligence requires awareness and perspective. Awareness helps us discern what information is important and what can be safely disregarded. It involves understanding how the choices in front of you align with yours or organizational goals and values. What are you ultimately trying to achieve and how does this information or decision point fit in with that? Perspective promotes the ability to “roll with it” even when we may never be confident in whether our decision was the “right” one. We would all do well to remember that in a day filled with a hundred decisions and choices, a single one will rarely make or break a career. Perspective affords an emotional resiliency despite the deluge of data and decisions we find ourselves under.

The ability to make effective decisions in complex, ambiguous contexts can be developed. Wide-ranging experiences promote a broad perspective within which to situate disparate pieces of information. Broader knowledge bases make it easier to perceive patterns and trends, which can help you avoid getting overwhelmed by data and details. Make sure that you and everyone else in the organization is clear about over-arching goals and how they are nested so that decisions are made within the context of what drives organizational success. Knowing what matters means not turning every decision into an emergency, which keeps people on an even emotional keel and promotes good decisions.

“It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” ~Roy Disney