Why we should all watch Danny Boyle’s film ‘Sunshine’ to improve our decision making

Luke Bellamy
Apr 20 · 8 min read

Fact (I think…..) we make on average 35,000 decisions a day. Some of these will be tiny, what socks shall I wear, should I have chocolate sprinkles on my Cappuccino? Whereas some are huge business critical decisions where people’s livelihoods, mortgages and career aspirations hang in the balance. Now I cannot find the original source for this staggering number of decisions or how exactly they defined what constitutes a decision (does not picking your nose on a zoom call count as a decision???) but whatever the exact number is, we make a huge number of decisions every day and we rarely, if ever, talk about how we can get better ‘at making decisions’. I am not talking about ‘making better decisions’, I just want to be better at actually making them and not just constantly putting them on the back burner.

Throughout my career I have always encountered the endless waste, delay, stress and money lost because we were ‘waiting on a decision’. Projects overran, tools were not purchased and things just weren’t done.

So the first question for you is whether you have ever felt the same? Does the panel below seem at all familiar? Or quite simply have you ever been in a 3 hour meeting where the only decision made was to make all the decisions at the next meeting?

Dilbert walks into his bosses office. He asks him did the executive steering committee approve my project. His boss responds we agreed on a predecisional draft framework for making the decision. Dilbert asks does that mean anything? his boss responds it depends what you mean by anything

Now there are all sorts of reasons why we might struggle to make decisions. I won’t go into detail, or this blog would be endless but I recommend doing some light reading on these concepts:-

  • Loss Aversion — we feel losses more than twice as heavily as gains
  • Status Quo bias — if anyone has ever said ‘better the devil you know’ when discussing a terrible boss potentially being replaced then you have encountered this
  • Decision inertia — freezing when being confronted with a decision
  • Fear of a better option (FOBO) — Holding off on making a decision in the hope something better will come along (There was definitely less of this before mobile phones)
  • Omission bias — The tendency to favour an act of omission or inaction over one of action — Essentially we tend to not blame people for doing nothing, but we will blame them for taking action if we deem the results to be negative.

And finally my favourite: Bike Shedding . It’s called bike shedding as it originally related to a thought experiment where a fictional committee tasked with building a nuclear power plant would spend the majority of its time talking about far easier to grasp issues such as where to put the bike shed while ignoring the proposed design of the reactor itself. This is partly because everyone can understand a bike shed so designing one could theoretically result in endless discussions because everyone is able to have an (perfectly valid) opinion on how to do it better.

This is a term derived from Cyril Northcote Parkinsons ‘Law of Triviality’ which he wrote in 1957. He specifically said:

‘The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum (of money) involved’

He is essentially arguing that if you and I need to sit in a room together and make a £10million decision, it’s highly likely that we will spend a disproportionate amount of our time chatting about the quality of the coffee and what our new expensive project should be called rather than actually making the decision.

But what can we actually do about it? Well potentially a number of things.

Visualise your decisions

If you work in an agile environment then you will know the importance of visualising the work. Yet we never do this for a decision. I propose that you try to represent it alongside all your other work, for example:

Decisions being highlighted on a kanban board with a swimlane, or being in a decision making column, or having a flag and a different colour attached.
Decisions being highlighted on a kanban board with a swimlane, or being in a decision making column, or having a flag and a different colour attached.
  • You could create a decision making swimlane and put all decisions in there
  • You could introduce a decisions in progress or ‘DIP’ limit column
  • Alternatively simply use colours or flags to highlight any decisions

Team consent levels

If possible try and track down a fantastic talk by John Clapham at the Lean Agile Exchange 2020 which covered a lot of this subject and also provided this very handy team consent levels summary below. Sadly the talk doesn’t yet seem to be online (pretty sure he is available for speaking engagements though) but it’s well worth checking out his website for other tips.

Now as lovely, cuddly, caring people we all want consensus, we want everyone to be happy. But sadly this is rarely an option. When making decisions your team needs to ask themselves what level of consent they actually need. Does it really require 100% approval? This is rare and challenging to get. Or for this particular decision would a super majority (say 6 in favour 4 against) be enough to carry the day and move forward? We do some of this naturally. Now having a ‘Veto’ sounds very UN Security Council but when was the last time (pre-COVID at least) that you went to a team lunch where you forced someone to go to a restaurant that they hated or one that uses ingredients they are allergic to?

Now I will talk more about this later but I personally find myself doing a lot of Level 3 or ‘Abstaining’ on a lot of decisions. I am a delivery manager not an engineer so I excuse myself from ‘engineering decisions’, it’s none of my business what language you decide to use or what tool you prefer. I genuinely believe that more of us should abstain from decisions if it is not our specific area of expertise or if we simply do not feel that strongly about it. There is no shame in saying ‘I am not qualified to answer that’ or state that since you are not (or only minimally) impacted by the decision you will abstain.

I urge you to consider the below with your teams when making decisions and select the right level of consent for the decision at hand.

Level 1 Wholehearted endorsement (complete support). Level 2 support with reservations (concerns) not 100% people need to register concerns to feel heard. Level 3 abstain (step aside or offer no opinion) are all types of consensus. Level 4 agreement with contention (serious concerns). Level 5 serious disagreement (step out or I will not be a part of this) are types of consent. Level 6 more discussion needed. Level 7 veto are times when more work will be needed
Level 1 Wholehearted endorsement (complete support). Level 2 support with reservations (concerns) not 100% people need to register concerns to feel heard. Level 3 abstain (step aside or offer no opinion) are all types of consensus. Level 4 agreement with contention (serious concerns). Level 5 serious disagreement (step out or I will not be a part of this) are types of consent. Level 6 more discussion needed. Level 7 veto are times when more work will be needed

Decisions in meetings

  • Actually make time for decisions. In my experience decisions often aren’t made because we ran out of time (probably because of bike shedding). Consider either making them the first thing on the agenda or possibly the only thing on the agenda.
  • Make decisions explicit and I mean REALLY explicit. I once asked 5 times (a personal Paxman moment) if we had made a decision that I would take on a certain action. The responses from the others in the meeting were so non-commital that by the time the meeting ended I still was not really sure. Please call out that a ‘Decision’ has been made and ensure everyone understands. I have experienced few things as frustrating as spending entire away days planning work only for people to disagree on what we agreed to the next day and taking us back to square one.

The most important decision making lesson I have ever learned

Now I trust that you have all watched Danny Boyle’s 2007 Cinematic Sci-fi masterpiece Sunshine? If you somehow missed this visually stunning experience you can order it here.

Now what the hell has a film about a bunch of astronauts in a big gold ship flying to the Sun carrying a nuclear bomb got to do with decision making.

In one particular scene an event occurs which leads to the team discussing whether they should alter their current course. It takes place between three characters. Mace is one of the astronauts, Searle is the ship’s doctor and psychological officer and Kaneda is the Captain. Please read the transcript below:

Mace: We’ll have a vote

Searle: No. No, we won’t. We are not a democracy. We’re a collection of astronauts and scientists, so we’re gonna make the most informed decision available to us.

Mace: Made by you, by any chance?

Kaneda: Made by the person best qualified to understand the complexities of payload delivery: our physicist.

Now this has always stuck in my mind and I genuinely think about it at least once a week while at work. At any meeting, when we are trying to make a decision are we really listening to the ‘person best qualified’ to make that decision? I would argue that we often don’t, we all want our voices to be heard while simultaneously also wanting to include and listen to everyone’s opinions, we also often bend to the loudest person in the room. So next time you and your team have a decision to make please take a bit of time to think about who actually has the skills to make the most informed decision possible.

For anyone who does watch the film there is also a fantastic example of teams discussing consent levels prior to making a decision (though with horrific implications).

Real world musing

To quickly bring it back to the real world while also providing a shameless plug for the FT’s quality journalism. Amazon is continuing to dominate and get stronger and stronger with each passing year. One particular quote jumped out at me from a great article by our own Dave Lee The Amazon Machine.

‘We call it the invention machine. Amazon could make decisions when Jeff was not in the room’.

Now the success of Amazon is down to many factors, but could the ability to make decisions be one of them? Rather than it being an ‘Invention Machine’ could Amazon simply be an almost perfect ‘Decision making machine’?

Thank you for making it this far, here are some inspiring quotes to leave you with. I hope all your future decisions are good ones.

‘A real decision is measured by the fact that you have taken a new action

If there is no action, you haven’t truly decided’

Tony Robbins

‘Once you’ve got a task to do, it’s better to do it than live with the fear of it’

Logen Ninefingers, the Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

FT Product & Technology

A blog by the Financial Times Product & Technology…

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