the mysterious disappearance of ‘Yes” and ‘No’ (and frugal decision making)

 

Ok.

This is ‘not about saying ‘Yes” when you really should say ‘No’.

Nor is this about saying ‘No’ when you really mean to say ‘Yes”.

Heck.

This isn’t even about compromising. This is simply about saying ‘Yes” and ‘No’ and the fact it has seemed to have mysteriously disappeared in today’s business <if not in many of Life’s every day conversations>.

To be clear. Haven’t you noticed how often a portion of a business discussion is succinctly brought to a close with a nice definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response … yet … somehow that part of the discussion is somehow not concluded?

For some reason even if you do actually deign to take the simplicity high road and answer with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, well, the other person just keeps on talking. Or maybe if they want to show they have actually been listening they may say something like “are you sure?” or “wouldn’t you like me to explain?” or some other attempt to continue that particular discussion. And if you are in a group? Oh my. Forget it. You may as well keep the yes or the no in your pocket.

So.

What has happened to ‘yes’ and ‘no’?

Where have they gone in business?

Look. We tend to overcomplicate things in business. We seem to bundle up yes or no things into some conglomeration of an extended decision tree — all of which we assume must be discussed in its totality.

That said. Life would be much easier if we simply looked at each ‘yes” or ‘no’ decision in a meeting or discussion as preparation for the next opportunity or decision in a continuum of decisions. Treat the moment as mutually exclusive instead of mutually inclusive. What that ultimately suggests is maybe we shouldn’t dwell in the moment and linger upon the righteousness of the particular one syllable statement when someone makes it.

I am not suggesting that it isn’t important to be thoughtful about your decisions but maybe we could seek to avoid becoming a victim of paralysis by analysis and ongoing discussion, when it really is not necessary, more often.

Oh.

saying nothing manSpeaking of the ‘not necessary’ thing. I sense part of the reason yes and no are disappearing is because we believe it is necessary to discuss everything.

That leads me to yes and no and something called ‘fast and frugal decision-making.’

<I didn’t make that up>

Two guys wrote a book suggesting that asking, at most, three ‘Yes/No’ questions is a fast and frugal strategy for making a decision < “Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart” by Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter Todd and the ABC Research Group>.

And, in fact, they actually call this theory ‘fast and frugal heuristics.’ I will net it down for you <albeit I will probably mis-summarize some of their really smart thinking and logic>:

–          Traditional decision making theory is unrealistic <irrational> for humans <our minds are just not capable of practically applying theory>,

–          We tend to overcomplicate because we have been trained to do so,

–          We tend to overcomplicate for fear of ‘wrong decision’ rather than delight of ‘right decision’,

–          Most decisions can be made within three naturally course correcting ‘yes or no’ decision making answers.

Well. Before I share my own thoughts

About fast & frugal decision making:

It is fast because it does not involve much computation, and it is frugal because it only searches for some of the available information. Its simplicity raises the suspicion that it might be highly inaccurate, compared to standard statistical classification methods that process and combine all available predictors. Yet it is actually more accurate than some rather complex statistical classification methods (Breiman et al., 1993). This suggests that fast and frugal decision making can be as accurate as strategies that use all available information and expensive computation forms. Fast and frugal heuristics for making decisions capture how real minds make decisions under constraints of limited time and knowledge. 

The premise is that much of human reasoning and decision making can be modeled by fast and frugal heuristics that make inferences with limited time and knowledge. These heuristics do not involve much computation, and do not compute probabilities and utilities. They are models of bounded rationality.

By the way. I really like that overall thought — ‘models of bounded rationality.’ Seems like we could use a shitload more of that in today’s workplace.

Ok. They also note <in a very candid and slightly funny way> decision making theory, when applied in practical circumstances, is actually irrational. Irrational in that the human mind actually cannot accommodate the mental gymnastics to meet the theoretical computations necessary to make ‘the most effective decision:’

saying stupid things WhatIsTwoPlusTwoThe fascination with what is optimal in thought and behavior does reflect a certain sense of beauty and morality. Cognitive scientists, economists, and biologists have often chased after the same beautiful dreams by building elaborate models endowing organisms with unlimited abilities to know, memorize, and compute. These heavenly dreams, however, tend to evaporate when they encounter the physical and psychological realities of the waking world. Mere mortal humans cannot hope to live up to these dreams, and instead appear irrational and dysfunctional when measured against their fantastic standards.

In addition. Most decision making theory doesn’t incorporate any time constraints. In other words: ‘this is the theory, apply it, deadlines be damned, it takes the time it need to apply it correctly.’

Well. That all sounds not very practical<the theory stuff>. And the fast & frugal sounds so simple it almost sounds not very practical.

Yet. I actually sense most of us with any amount of business experience instinctively agrees <mostly> with a fast & frugal decision making process albeit we may apply it in a variety of succinct ‘time frugal’ methods  which are most likely not as tight as the three yes/no idea.

So why the heck don’t we do it anymore if we instinctively think it is right?

Let me try this and I will use myself to explain. Two main reasons:

1.     We have taken theory literally.

Everyone in business these days has been steeped in training over the years to question everything. It doesn’t matter your seniority or experience, if you don’t agree you question. Heck. Even if you agree you question.

Even worse? We treat every decision equally. I say that to be kind to those who simply cannot discern what may actually be worth discussing <or discerning the important from the unimportant> . Doesn’t matter what the reason is, we seem to discuss … every … single … decision. What that means is that even if you do decide to assess the discussion and say ‘yes’ … and that’s it <in your mind>.

Someone will question it or simply want to discuss it.

By the way. Collaboration exponentially exacerbates this issue. In a groupthink collaborative scenario there will ALWAYS be at least one person who will disagree, want to discuss, decline to move on <add in whatever ‘d’ word you would like to in this space> and it will all happen in the name of ‘positive collaboration.’ The net result? Negative progress <translation: no forward movement and often backwards movement>.

Look. I won’t argue with all the decision making theory models. Smarter people than I have invested gobs of time and research thinking all that shit through. I will suggest in the business world, i.e., the practical world, we need to become better at not over thinking <or over questioning> and we need to become better at not treating each decision as equal to another <so possibly we need to be better at training how to discern the difference between decisions>.

Oh. That last thought.

That sounds simple and practical but we have actually been trained to do the opposite. This attitude would take a major shift in attitude. In other words — this would be very very hard to do.

2.       Skepticism

For some reason we have become quite skeptical in the work place. And by this I mean there seems to be an overall sense of ‘they aren’t really saying what they mean’ or in the questioning-everything environment maybe it is ‘what do they really mean by that?”

Well. If I was using a shitload of words I could possibly allow some skepticism but this is about one syllable responses – yes … no.

I frankly don’t see a lot of ambiguity or space to misconstrue what is actually being said. However. A respected friend made me think about this more as we discussed the topic.

Therefore rather than be hypothetical I will address this from my point of view on what everyone should know when I say yes or no:

–          I am not being lazy. I am perfectly aware that saying a simple yes or no will most likely be jarring in a discussion environment. Suffice it to say that if I have reached a point where I believe a yes or no is appropriate I fully understand the situation and the thinking behind whatever we are discussing. I have gathered enough information either prior to the discussion, within the discussion to that point or in my head from past experiences and knowledge to assess and decide.  Most likely I have decided that in the scheme of things our time would be better spent discussing another decision rather than this one.

In other words … I have been anything but lazy. Oh. And even if I have not been lazy and I have misread the discussion up to this point I imagine everything can be course corrected as we move on or … I have forfeited my right to … well … move it along that path.

–          I mean it. yes or no crazyI promise. I mean it. You don’t have to explain anything else or question motives or discuss what has been agreed upon any more.

Accept it.

I mean it.

And let’s move on.

I imagine the few words of explanation I just shared will not resolve a global work place skepticism attitude but, what the heck, ‘one small step possibly begets one giant leap for workplace mankind.’

Anyway. Suffice it to say … saying yes or no is good and we should be doing it more often in the work place.

I know that sounds so silly you may be wondering why I typed it, but sometimes the most simple things are overlooked.

Ok. A couple last thoughts.

This yes or no thing. You just have to have a clear sense of  objectives, commitments and priorities.  If you don’t have a handle on all that then a yes or no will not only truly be lazy thinking it may actually be a misguided response.

That is what makes this tricky. And it’s often easier for everyone <and I mean everyone> to discuss things <so everyone can discuss, and re-discuss, the objectives, commitments and priorities — until your head explodes>.

Yeah. I know. All that ‘over-discussion’ sounds a little wacky in a semi chaotic time constrained business world, but I imagine discussion leads to being more well-liked <and some perception of ‘team player’ and such>.

yes no yes no frenchBut we all need to keep in mind. Each day in the workplace we are forced to examine millions of little decisions that inevitably make up what business is all about. This constant scrutiny of hundreds of possible outcomes for every decision you make will drive you nuts. And the constant discussion will use up more time than is useful.

In the end <here is what I believe>.

Business needs to be more diligent with regard to the importance of good decision-making.

While business is certainly ultimately the sum of the decisions made … it makes sense to recognize it is often not as difficult as we often make it. Each decision is not business altering nor life threatening. In fact … most are not. In addition … most decisions are just not that complicated or complex.

In fact <simplistically> I would argue all things basically come down to one basic decision between two choices – ‘Yes” or ‘No’.

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Written by Bruce