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  • 1.  How do you know if you've made a good decision?

    Posted 03-15-2021 03:22 PM

    We make decisions every day. Many of these decisions are small, within our 'wheelhouse'  of knowledge and expertise and possibly of minor consequence. Occasionally, we are faced with decisions that might be out the ordinary and have some combination of complexity, medium to high consequence, and with uncertainties. How do you develop confidence that you are making a good decision – especially in this latter case? 

    In the recent thread on Cognitive Biases, Professor Bill Bulleit made reference to work by Kahneman and Tversky showing that humans have two modes of thinking: a System 1 where we think fast and predominantly rely on instinct and emotion and a System 2 where we think slowly and predominantly rely on deliberation and logic. Not surprisingly, System 1, also called the lazy part of our brain, dominates most of our decision making. This can be trap. Professor Bulleit provided a link to paper he authored showing the implications of this work to structural engineering but with insight and conclusions that are far more general in nature. Have you found yourself in the System 1 trap?

    One way to mitigate the System 1 trap is to apply a structured approach to decision making.  An approach is Decision Quality. There are a lot of great references on the web, but I particularly like the approach used by SDG. This approach breaks the decision into discrete attributes, thus allowing the attributes to be assessed and quantified prior to implementing. While one cannot control the outcome (e.g., uncertainties may prevail), one can control the quality of the decision.  Decision Quality typically has six attributes including:

    Appropriate Problem Frame

    • What decision are we trying to make?
    • Do we have the right scope for the decision?
    • What is the context and background of the decision?
    • Do stakeholders understand and agree with the scope of the decision?

    Meaningful, Reliable Information

    • What do we know?
    • Equally, what do we not know?
    • Have we identified the key decisions?
    • Do we know and trust our sources of information?

    Creative Alternatives

    • What are the options or choices?
    • Are these doable and actionable?

    Clear Values and Tradeoffs

    • What do we want to achieve?
    • Do we understand our value drivers?
    • Do we know the relevant tradeoffs?

    Logically Correct Reasoning

    • Are we using good logic to evaluate our options?
    • Are we using available information and keeping in mind what we want?
    • Have we applied appropriate decision-making tools?

    Commitment to Action

    • Are our stakeholders ready to make the decision and ready to act?

    What other approaches have you seen or used to avoid the System 1 trap?

    Mitch Winkler P.E., M.ASCE
    Houston, TX

  • 2.  RE: How do you know if you've made a good decision?

    Posted 03-18-2021 06:49 PM
      |   view attached

     Thanks Mitch for the "Head Scratcher!" challenge!

    First, I suggest we lose the word "Good."

    Next, as I understand the application for this decision is in a somewhat uncommon, less anticipated situation, it suggests going forward with "Baby Steps" and lose any "Just do it!" mentality.

    Seems like a valid approach to begin to better understand what this known-unknown is about would suggest use of the Deming Plan->Do->Study-> Act approach with the initial pilot [ attached].

     As the study group's level of understanding increases, the boundaries for the PDSA application increase.

    Stay Healthy1



    p.s. The decision group's usual people-challenge when working incrementally are the "I get it now, let's just do it!"

    William M. Hayden Jr., Ph.D., P.E., CMQ/OE, F.ASCE
    Buffalo, N.Y.

    "It is never too late to be what you might have been." -- George Eliot 1819 - 1880


  • 3.  RE: How do you know if you've made a good decision?

    Posted 03-22-2021 11:00 AM
    ​Went back to the University of Michigan to obtain a M.S.C.E. in Construction Engineering & Management from 1986-1987.  Asked my advisor/teacher, Professor Robert B. Harris, in class: How do we know that we have made the correct decision?

    He did not answer right away.  When he did, his response was: "Given all of the information available at the present time, you have a 50% chance of making the correct decision."  Throughout my decades long career as a registered Civil Engineer/certified Project Management Professional, I rely upon the input of the individual members of the Project Team to provide me with their valuable input.  Full disclosure: I have been removed as the PM because of the second guessing by the upper management. 

    System 1 implies, directly or indirectly, that the Project Manager (PM) in operating in a "Project Management by Committee".  By the way...  That's a made up term by me.  If the PM finds himself in this environment, then he's no longer the PM.  That person only has the title & not the responsibilities/duties of the Project Manager.  The responsibilities/duties has been delegated/relegated to the Project Management by Committee.

    Steven Rienks P.E., M.ASCE
    Naperville IL

  • 4.  RE: How do you know if you've made a good decision?

    Posted 03-25-2021 09:24 AM

    Steven, Thanks for responding and sharing your experience. Your professor's response  suggests to me he had a good understanding of the decision at hand and strong sense of self-awareness. I wonder if he was referring to the decision itself or the outcome?  On this point, something that was drummed into my head was the distinction between a decision and an outcome.

    You can control a decision but outcomes, especially when uncertainties are involved, cannot always be controlled. The best situation is good decision and good outcome. Unfortunately, uncertainties sometimes prevail and you don't get the desired outcome even when you take a good decision. For completeness the other possibilities are bad decision and good outcome and bad decision and bad outcome.

    It would have been interesting to ask him more about his basis for the 50% value. I think this is where the elements of decision quality are valuable because they provide a structured basis for examining the decision input. If it was one or more uncertainties that were driving the 50% value you could have explored if these uncertainties were reducible or to understand the implications on the outcome and if it was something that could be tolerated. This also sets up the question about the value of additional information. But I will stop here.

    Mitch Winkler P.E., M.ASCE
    Houston, TX

  • 5.  RE: How do you know if you've made a good decision?

    Posted 03-22-2021 12:16 PM
    • Mitchell, the short answer to the question is: you know by evaluating the outcomes and consequences of the decision. Evaluating whether good or bad – in professional terms. Your analysis, cited materials and the described attributes provide some good insights.
    • Perhaps, decision making processes can best be viewed and analyzed by asking some pertinent questions: Who make decisions and for whom? What make decision making? How the decisions are made? What are consequences of decisions coming into actions?
    • As an answer to the first question, one can say that whoever has the authority to make decision. People make frequent and infrequent decisions – from trivial to large context to impact-making – on personal and family matters, on scientific, technical and administrative matters, etc. Time and again, we realize that our decisions bear good fruit when we manage to remain calm – uninfluenced by clouding of thought processes.
    • But more of the first question may be answered by looking into conventional management procedures. In the tradition of top-down management scheme, it is the people at the top – who have the power and authority to make decisions for others. Then one may ask: is the decision made by a single person, or by majority or by consensus? And what are the roles of or consultations with others, if any?
    • Decision making process is prompted by some perceived realities and necessities. Again the questions of basis on which the process is initiated arise: is the process ill- or well-informed, well- or callously-analyzed, ill- or well-conceived, etc? As one can imagine, the consequences of following one or the other can have widely differing impacts. One can go on and on addressing all such different questions and issues of decision making processes . . .





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    Dr. Dilip Barua, Ph.D, P.Eng, M. ASCE
    Vancouver, BC, Canada

  • 6.  RE: How do you know if you've made a good decision?

    Posted 08-08-2021 06:45 PM

    I've had this thread up in my browser for the past 5 months because I thought you posed such a good question.  The reason it stayed there is because in 5 months, I haven't come up with any better answers to your question than the specific, measurable suggestions that you have already provided. 

    This topic reminds me of a conversation I once saw between to characters in a web series I grew up following. It does not go into the important details that you highlighted here, such as how to quantify a decision, (especially independently of the result which could have been affected by external factors). But nonetheless, I have always appreciated it due to its simplicity. 

    The summary of the conversation is as follows:
    Person 1: It feels like every choice I make is the worst. How are you supposed to know if you're making the right call?
    Person 2: Well... you don't. There's never really a right or wrong answer. You just have to stick with what you think is best.
    Person 1: But what if what I think it's best totally sucks?
    Person 2: Then you learn from it and you try again.  I know you're frustrated but you have to realize that making mistakes is just part of the deal. Even with everything you've screwed up, look at how far you made it.

    It reminds me of a quote I heard, which Google attributes to American businessman Thomas Watson: "If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate" 
    Essentially, it seems that "failing" is inevitable in the path to learning. 

    Perhaps then, the question shouldn't be "how do I make the right decision?" (in engineering), but rather "how to I make the wrong decision in a safe manner or environment?"

    I hope these musings are useful contribution, and don't derail your excellent topic. 

    PS in case you were curious: the original conversation I summarized is from the web series Red vs Blue, Season 12, Episode 15. Note that the show contains some strong language.

    Christopher Seigel P.E., M.ASCE
    Civil Engineer

  • 7.  RE: How do you know if you've made a good decision?

    Posted 08-09-2021 02:43 PM

    Thanks for reading and your thoughtful response. It is hard to believe that 5 months have elapsed since originally posting. Here are my thoughts. I see failure as an acceptable decision outcome, as long as it does not come as a surprise and is societally acceptable. For example the book Liftoff by Eric Berger describes how SpaceX used failure as an enabler to derisk their first rocket. Here, the consequence of failure was principally financial. Loss of life was not an issue and the public was not impacted. Failure was a tradeoff they were willing to make to try and reduce schedule time.  Each time they tried and failed could be generally classified as good decision – bad outcome. However, all decisions, including bad ones, must as table stakes protect the health, safety and welfare of the public. Ideally, we want to make the good decisions. This is the art of engineering in my opinion.  

    Mitch Winkler P.E., M.ASCE
    Houston, TX