We are, as a rule, certainty seekers. We invent techniques like budgets, plans, and schedules to remove doubts about our likelihood of success and make ourselves more certain, or at least give ourselves the illusion of certainty. When we can’t find certainty, we get stuck. If we can’t be sure we are making the right decision, we often can’t make a decision at all.
Complexity presents many challenges for decision making. In an uncertain environment, with conditions rapidly changing, how can you be sure that the decision you make is the right one? What data do you need to make the right decision? What happens if a decision is made and conditions change?
The biggest problem with making decisions in a complex, rapidly changing environment is not the decision itself; it’s our psychology.
Our psychological need to be right the first time presents the biggest challenge to successful decision making in complexity. The inability to see a clear decision often leads to a decision being continually deferred to build more certainty through more analysis. This leads to delays that cannot be tolerated in our fast-changing world.
Once a decision is made, if it ever gets made, it is often seen as fixed. We have chosen our path; let’s not revisit it. However, in a rapidly changing environment, the right decision today may not be the right decision tomorrow, and the inability to adapt becomes a veritable albatross around the neck of the organization.
The Wrong Tool for the Job
Leaders have deeply internalized the need to be right the first time. They feel every decision must be correct and unchangeable because to change a decision is to admit to having made a bad decision in the first place. Having a "right-first-time" view is fundamentally incompatible with successful decision making in complexity.
Many of the tools we reach for in day-to-day decision making are the wrong tools for a complex environment. It’s like reaching into your tool bag and finding only a hammer. Although a hammer is a useful tool and can do many things, it is not the best tool in many situations. You can drive a screw in with a hammer, but slowly and with much damage to the timber you are fastening — and no guarantee that the timber will stay fastened under load.
Thus, leaders need to expand their decision-making toolbox. They need tools that allow for a rapid situation assessment so they can make a decision (right or wrong), then adapt that decision as it plays out in the real world.
The most important tool for leaders in complexity is the notion of partial correctness: a decision does not need to be, and indeed often cannot be, fully correct. It just needs to be correct enough to provide a starting point for learning.
The notion of waiting for a fully correct decision (indeed, the notion that a fully correct decision exists at all) is problematic in a complex environment. Leaders must accept that any decision they make will not be the “best” decision, but the “best we can do with the knowledge we have right now” is the right decision to make at this point in time.
As more information comes to light about the situation and how the organization is responding to the actions already taken, that decision can (and must) be revisited and adapted. Leaders in complexity can learn from Paul Samuelson, the famous 20th-century economist who is attributed to have said: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”1
Decision making in complexity is not difficult, just different. Old tools based on searching for certainty and finding the best answer must give way to a new set of tools based around iteration, experimentation, and adaption.
1While this quote has been attributed often to economist John Maynard Keynes, there is no direct evidence to support this claim. Quote Investigator attributes the statement to Samuelson, who reportedly was quoting Maynard Keynes. See: “When the Facts Change, I Change My Mind. What Do You Do, Sir?” Quote Investigator, accessed October 2022.
[For more from the authors on this topic, see: “Decision Making in the Time of Complexity.”]