Let’s be clear, there’s always more than one choice.
And for all the important decisions. The ones for important change. You should take the time to uncover and understand all the options you have. Even the seemingly crazy ones.
But I’m not talking about those types of decisions.
Our days are taken up with making decisions. And it can be tiring. Using up mental and emotional resources.
So anything that can reduce the mental and emotional load, frees up time in your day for the important work you do.
The key for these decisions is to develop heuristics – shortcuts or rules creating constraints or boundaries, limiting your choices
The sort of decisions I’m talking about might include at it’s most basic,
- What clothes to wear today – Steve Jobs and Barrack Obama famously both had heuristics for this. Indeed Steve Jobs had one choice ultimately.
But more relevantly,
- Do we want to work with this client?
- What’s the most important thing to be working on today?
- Is this a project we want to be working on?
- Does this require a meeting?
- Who should we employ, or let go?
and many more.
The trick is to develop the heuristics that work for you: “I only wear Issey Miyake black turtleneck, blue jeans, New balance sneakers.” Or for an architecture practice, for example: “We only work on affordable housing projects.” This leads to a clear decision, and it’s either yes or no.
Heuristics are for…
- to reduce choices and make decisions easier.
- to give you the guard rails to stop you saying yes to something you should be saying no to.
- to help you avoid your cognitive bias’s.
- making a space to deeply reflect on what aligns with the work you do.
- to share in the decision making, giving others insight into the decision boundaries.
- to share with others how a decision was made, or circumvent the need by providing decision guidelines up front.
How to develop your own heuristics
To develop an effective shortcuts to decisions requires careful consideration and reflection. Guides to serve you and set you up for success. And are based upon your past experiences and future focus.
There’s no one or right way to create your own heuristics, but there’s principles to follow.
- They must be simple.
- They must deliver the same outcome no matter who applies them, ie there’s no room for ambiguity.
- They should be a part of the culture of your practice, whether entirely embodied or simply regularly referred to.
Let’s begin with where they live (and they should be live documents). They might form a part of an office manual, strategy documents, or as part of you vision, mission, values documents. They could have different names, but these are the key documents to incorporate them into. How you do it is up to what works best for your practice and how to make them easily accessible for the entire team.
If you don’t have documents such as an office manual, strategy documents, vision mission values documents, or the equivalent, start there. Create a document that will act as a guiding star for the practice. Everyone in the team might contribute to the writing, or just the core leaders. Regardless of who is involved, the documents should include the background, rationale or why of the heuristic. So that they’re entirely coherent to, and fully understood by, future team members.
The heuristic developed might be a checklist requiring all, or a percentage of conditions, be met for a particular decision – such as whether a particular project is a good fit for the practice. They might be guidelines, templates or statements, that can be as basic as “We do this… [name this] only”. Ultimately, whatever they look like, if they’re helping eliminate choices in decision making, you’ve done it right. If not, they might need tweaking. Test, critique and iterate.
Heuristics need to be documented and readily available, whether that’s in-house, or even publicly on your website for example. If they’re difficult to find, they can’t be utilised. And sharing the responsibility frees everyone up.
Follow up and iterate
Don’t let perfect get in the way of done. You won’t get them right the first time. It’s likely you’ll need to work on them, iterate or adjust them over time. No plan survives first contact with the enemy.
Always be testing and measuring their success. This might be ironic from someone that’s called their business unmeasured, but it’s worth measuring and recording your simple rules and how they played out – to assess if they’re working. How was the outcome? Is there any potential or actual problem with your rules or guidelines? Do you need to tweak them? What have you learnt from the process that might inform future heuristics?
Risks and challenges
As we know from problems identified in AI – which is a sophisticated and complex form of machine learning heuristic – biases can be built in if we’re not careful. There’s always the risk, if you’re not careful, that you might build in new bias, one of the things your trying to avoid. The best way to avoid this is to have them reviewed by someone independent and with emotional detachment from what you’ve created.
Also important to acknowledge, they don’t guarantee the best outcome or at least the one that serves you best. At my old practice, for example, where we placed a high premium on how staff interviewed for a job, we had one occasion to disregard our guidelines. We had a job candidate who interviewed badly – even by his own admission. Yet in our reference check he had glowing references. We chose to ignore his interview and accept the references. He was an exceptional employee who contribution to the practice could not be overstated.
The lesson: rigid application of your heuristics doesn’t always serve you, but you need to be clear on when to go against them. They shouldn’t be a straight jacket. But use that as an excuse to arbitrarily go against them. You must have an accountability partner in when choosing to ignore them. So you’re not fooling yourself or telling yourself a story justifying the discounting of an heuristic.
When developing your own heuristics, carefully consider and reflect on your past experiences and future focus.
They should be simple, deliver the same outcome regardless of who applies them and become a part of your practice’s culture.
They must be documented and readily available.
Follow up on and iterate over time.
Be aware of the risks and challenges, such as biases and the need for flexibility in certain situations.
Ultimately, heuristics provide guardrails to guide decision-making and free up mental and emotional resources for more important work.
Image by photoGraph [edited]