How To Make Better, Faster Decisions When It Really Matters

Research shows that we make about a million decisions every month — decisions about what to eat, what to wear, what to believe, and to what and whom we should give our limited attention. Most of these decisions aren’t important, but there are a few key decisions that do matter. Getting those decisions right or wrong can radically affect the lives we lead, the organizations we run, and the countries we live in.

We can run into errors or delays in making these consequential decisions when we use what Daniel Kahneman calls our “fast and automatic” mode of thinking. This can cause us to either over-react and make bad changes, or choices or under-react and procrastinate on making good changes or choices. In these cases, we’d benefit from employing a “slow and deliberate” mode of thinking instead.

There are two particularly popular methods for deliberative decision-making: asking an expert and using a pros-and-cons list. Unfortunately, while both methods have benefits, they are also both particularly prone to error.

An expert can offer an objective view, but unfortunately, we usually seek out advisors who will simply confirm our biases. And although pros-and-cons lists — which were first introduced by Benjamin Franklin in 1772 — can help us slow down our thinking and expose our biases, they usually don’t end up producing good results. Unless your pros and cons share a common utility (such as time or money), you can’t really compare them directly. The upshot is that you’ll either get stuck again or end up just going with your gut.

Surely, with all the advances in decision science over the past 250 years, there must be a better way?

This is the question that Dr. Alan Barnard, one of the world’s leading scientists in decision-making, has worked to address for more than two decades. He’s developed a new method and field-tested it with individuals and organizations around the globe.

The results have been impressive: he has managed to create a simple step-by-step process that can help anyone make better, faster decisions and learn from their past decision mistakes.

Like any good scientist, Dr. Barnard started by studying the giants in his field. Just as he studied Franklin and Kahneman, he also studied another giant: Eli Goldratt, author of The Goal. For more than 30 years, Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints has been an influential force in the field of decision-making theory — particularly with regard to how we allocate and manage scarce resources. Time lists The Goal as one of the most influential business management books of all time, and Jeff Bezos uses The Goal as a guide for sketching out the future of Amazon.

But Dr. Barnard’s real fascination was with Goldratt’s critical thinking tools, especially the Evaporating Cloud method. That method’s main advantage over the pros-and-cons list is that it can actually help us expose and challenge our assumptions so that we can find win/win solutions to our biggest decision conflicts. Unfortunately, it also has a few limitations.

Dr. Barnard’s mission was to create a new decision-making process — one that would preserve the benefits of existing methods while overcoming their inherent limitations. He called his new method the “ProConCloud” in homage to Benjamin Franklin and Eli Goldratt.

After a decade of developing and field-testing this method, Dr. Barnard has refined it down to five steps, each of which was designed to prevent one of the five most common and consequential decision-making mistakes. These are the five key mistakes and the associated 5 Steps of the ProConCloud we can use to avoid them:

  1. We often waste our limited attention on unimportant issues or procrastinate on the issues that are important. Instead, Step 1 applies a quick litmus test when evaluating whether any issue is important enough to resolve without delay: does it make me/us feel like a dark cloud is hanging over us and can we clearly define why it will be bad for all stakeholders if not resolved?
  2. When trying to resolve important issues we often jump to a solution or simply look for someone to blame. Instead, Step 2 guides us to identify the decision conflict we face in dealing or solving this issue defining the unique Pros and Cons, not only of the change we feel pressure to make, but also of the Pros and Cons of not changing. And if we’re inclined to blame ourselves or someone else, we should evaluate the conflict faced by the one(s) being blamed in the same way.
  3. We often focus on only one possible resolution mostly involving a compromise that will require both sides to give up something. Instead, Step 3 guides us to explore four alternative win/win options, each with more pros and fewer cons than the “change” or “no change” options currently being considered.
  4. We often ignore our own or other stakeholder’s valid reservations — “Yes-Buts” — or use any reservations as excuses not to act. Instead, Step 4 guides us through a simple process to use the valid Yes-Buts to create an even more robust solution and transform resistance to active support.
  5. We often only partially implement solutions making it difficult to know whether partial outcomes were due to an incomplete solution or as a result of not fully implementing the solution. Instead, Step 5 helps to design an experiment to allow us to fully test our new breakthrough solution without compromising.

The extensive field testing has showed that each of the 5 Steps of the ProConCloud method can help expose a limiting assumption or belief that can cause you to under-react or over-react.

For example, completing Step 2 of the ProConCloud process — filling in the template pictured below— can expose why you or someone else might procrastinate on an important decision. That sort of procrastination is always due to an exaggerated fear of losing the pros of the status quo (no change) or an exaggerated fear of the risk (the cons) inherent to the change you feel pressure to make.

This step can also expose why you or someone else might overreact due to an exaggerated frustration with the cons of the status quo, or due to an exaggerated expectation of the benefits that you will accrue from making a change.

The ProConCloud structure can also clearly expose the four new options that you have not yet considered, each of which can deliver more pros and fewer cons than either of your original options.

For instance, the first of these options, which Dr. Barnard calls “Change++,” challenges you to think what you can add to the change you were considering, so you no longer have to lose the pros that you assumed were unique to the status quo (the first plus), and what you can add to reduce the cons or risks that you originally believed were inherent to making a change (the second plus). He calls the other three options “No Change++,” “When + When Not,” and “Another Change.”

Over the past few years, individuals and management teams from around the world have made major breakthroughs using Dr. Barnard’s ProConCloud method. The method has helped them expose and challenge their own or other stakeholders’ limiting assumptions or beliefs. Doing so has empowered them to create new powerful options with more pros and fewer cons than they had before.

For example, this method has helped expose and challenge limiting assumptions that can explain:

· Why it’s so hard for people to make and sustain good nutritional choices

· Why so many patients do not take their medication exactly as prescribed

· Why good kids become bullies

· Why management teams keep using metrics and incentives which they know can drive short-term or local optima at the expense of long-term or global optima

· Why people often resist adopting new technologies that they probably know could benefit them, their organizations, or the people they care about

To make the ProConCloud method accessible to more people, Dr. Barnard and his team at Goldratt Research Labs released the Harmony Decision Maker app for Desktop, iOS and Android devices. The app guides users through the five steps of the ProConCloud method. The team also built a sharing function into the app so that users can share their analysis and implementation status privately with other stakeholders, or even publicly to help users learn from each other.

But Dr. Barnard emphasizes that none of this would have been possible without the work of the thinkers and researchers who preceded him. “It’s only by standing on the shoulders of giants,” he says, “that we’ve been able to poke our heads above the dark clouds and spot their silver linings.”