Thursday, November 3, 2011

Lessons from Greece on decisions

I think there are three key decision-making lessons from the current economic situation in Greece:
1. No one can avoid reality - the Greek financial situation
2. Things may not always be as they seem - the Greek Prime Minister's decision
3. Sometimes in order to get a message through someone's filter, you have to shock them

To elaborate:

1. No one can avoid reality
This one is most obvious. When it comes to decision-making, there is no doubt that Greece has made some bad decisions in recent years. Principally, they failed to address foreseeable realities. Their economy was unsustainable due to high levels of tax avoidance, overly generous government programs, and - the killer for economies based on the currently fashionable, free-market capitalism approach - little prospect for economic growth. One of the principal problems for them now is that the attitudes that led to these decisions are difficult to change overnight. I'm not saying governments shouldn't help citizens, but if they do they have to recognize how they are going to pay for it.

2. Things may not always be as they seem
When Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou shocked everyone - including his own cabinet - with the announcement he would call a referendum, I like many others asked myself "what is he thinking?" My conclusion is that maybe, just maybe, this is a brilliant and unselfish act of political suicide designed to save his country's financial situation.
Consider the information we have: Greece is in dire financial straits, and will not survive financially for more than a month at best without external help. This help comes with many austerity strings attached. The Greek people have entrenched expectations of their entitlements and what their government will do for them which are not compatible with the financial austerity. The announcement by Papandreou that he intended to call a referendum prompted the French and German governments to say effectively "it's this package or nothing." The Greek government has a very small majority in Parliament, with a confidence vote set for this Friday. And finally, the fact that no one else, not even his own ministers, knew that Papandreou was going to announce a call for a referendum on the bailout package.
Given that Papandreou knows this financial relief must go ahead, and the alternatives are worse, how can he get Greeks to realize the seriousness of the situation? The answer is to do something not only outrageous but self-sacrificing to emphasize how important and grave is the situation.
My thinking was reinforced this morning when listening to the news. First was the news that some of Papandreou's cabinet ministers intend to vote against their own government on Friday which would trigger an election. Second, and most telling, is the report that Papandreou will be meeting with the Greek President today to offer his resignation. By doing this, he will take the fall and allow the rest of his government to pick up the pieces. But they then can do so with the ammunition that acceptance of the bailout package is Greece's last hope and with the seriousness of the situation emphasized by the fall of the Prime Minister.
Is George Papandreou a bumbling politician? Or is he a noble example of a politician putting his country ahead of his own interests? Given what we often see in politics, this may seem unlikely given the filter many of us have developed about politicians, but things are not always as they seem

3. Sometimes in order to get a message through someone's filter, you have to shock them
And this is why I think the scenario I outlined in Point 2 may be true. Greeks, like all of us, have become used to our current situation. Especially when things have been unchanged for a long time, we expect tomorrow to look like today (The Prediction Trap.) Our filters have developed to see the situation a certain way, and they block information that doesn't align with that view. Just like in some of the exercises I do in seminars, we distort information that may be slightly different from the past and convince ourselves that things are the same as they have been. This is exacerbated when politicians who have to introduce unpopular change try to paint it as a small modification of what has happened in the past.
Sometimes the only way to get information pass this distortion of people's filters is to shock them in such a way that it is impossible to see the situation as anything but a new reality.

What are the practical lessons for you, in your world? First, as I've said many times before, reality always intrudes. We can't avoid, at least in the long term, dealing with reality. Second, things are not always as they seem. We look at a situation, and think we know what is going on, but in all likelihood when people are involved it is more complex than it appears. Third, because people naturally believe that tomorrow will be the same as yesterday, small changes, small variations on situations, incrementally different information may sometimes be missed. Occasionally it takes a dramatic gesture to cause people to pay attention. Sending out one more email, or tucking an important announcement in a regular newsletter, may not get the attention it deserves.

We may never know if the scenario I have outlined is true. But even as a thought experiment, I think there are lessons for the decisions we all make every day.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A decision making process?

Over the years, I have had clients ask for "a decision making process." My response used to be "there is no such thing; if there was a universal decision making process, we could program a computer to make decisions and we wouldn't need people" (which in some cases might be a good thing.)

But what I have come to realize is that the tools and approaches I provide in my presentations and books can be assembled into a framework for decision making. Judgement is still needed, but the key is to organize the decision making process in a way that maximizes results.

One limitation in the human brain shows up when you are trying to decide or prioritize between several options. Let's say you're introducing a new product or service, and there are eight different approaches you can use to promote it. If you try to decide between all eight at once, odds are you will lose some details, or have a hard time keeping all options in your head at once.

Another example is getting a group to agree on items for an agenda. There may be 10 items proposed, but only time for three to be addressed. Typically, people will spend a significant amount of time discussing what should be discussed...

A decision making tool that can be used in both these situations is a Paired Sort. The Paired Sort breaks down a "many option" decision into a set of either/or decisions, and then totals the results.

We have had a paired sort tool on our web site for a while, but have not promoted it. Moreover, it would not work on portable devices such as the iPhone or Blackberry. So we re-wrote the program and now it should work on any device. It also can be used for individuals or group prioritization.

Please try it out here and let me know what you think!

As well, as I work on doing a better job of organizing these tools and approaches to make them easier to use, I am looking for examples of the types of decisions you make and problems you face. These can be easy or hard, large or small. My goal is to make decisions easier by helping you identify what type of decision you have to make and presenting the appropriate tools. This may be through a map of decision making or through computer aided questioning. So please send some examples!

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Monday, June 13, 2011

We're moving, and other news


First things first: we're moving. Our new contact information is

Decision Advancement
14 Shand Avenue
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
M8X 1T5


My phone and e-mail are:
phone: (416) 567-9540

If you haven't received an e-mail from me in a while, the name "Decision Advancement" may be new to you as well. When I started this endeavor, I called it "Thinking for Results". While thinking is still a key aspect of my work, I realized three things:

  1. my work is primarily around improving decisions and decision-making
  2. recently I've been bringing in tools for organizing information for decisions, especially in complex situations, that aren't directly related to thinking per se
  3. these days, thinking sometimes seems to be optional, but everyone has to make decisions!

Thus the name Decision Advancement.

As I mentioned in the second point above, recently I have been working on tools for the capture, analysis, and communication of complex situations. Some of these tools draw on my background in physics and engineering. Many of them are visual tools, which capitalize on strength of the human brain to carry out visual analysis. (There are examples of some of these techniques on our website.) These tools allow people to quickly grasp the essential elements and especially the interconnectedness of situations so they can understand the complexity without eliminating details and losing important information as a result.

Finally, more of my work these days is helping facilitate analysis of systems and situations to enable better decision making. In today's complex world, decision-making is tougher than it has been in a long time. Up until recently, it was possible to be successful by simply doing what had worked in the past. Either you worked on incrementally improving your own processes, or you copied the successful leaders in your situation.

But there is now much more uncertainty with respect to the economy, business, political situations, technology, and so on. Capturing the complexity and understanding interactions between the different factors is key to making good decisions. And exploring alternative future scenarios to ensure you are not blindsided by an unexpected event is also crucial to reducing risk and achieving long-term success.

For more information on these topics, please contact me directly, or visit our website for some examples of these tools and approaches.

Whether you're someone who has attended an event where I spoke, or who has read one of my books, or someone I know some other way, please feel free to drop me a line and let me know what you are up to as well.

Best regards,

Randy Park

Direct:  416-567-9540

Decision Advancement

Better Decisions, Faster Solutions, Fewer Mistakes

For articles, tips, and further information visit

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Optimism and Pessimism about the future

Last week, I had two experiences which caused me to view the future more optimistically. The first was that I attended an event on systems dynamics and systems thinking hosted by Earl Haig high school here in Toronto.

The half-dozen students who organized this event have formed a system dynamics club at the high school, and held this event, complete with guest speakers, to educate their peers about systems thinking. These young people are far ahead of many adults in their realization of the importance of understanding how we make decisions.

The second experience was viewing a video which I learned about through the conference. The video is at:

This video shows three 6-year-old boys using a diagram of a reinforcing loop to solve relationship problems they were having on the playground. I found it incredibly inspiring. It is definitely worth watching.

The pessimism comes from the federal election we are experiencing, and the state of politics in Canada. Two things in particular are disturbing. As someone who emphasizes that the best decisions are made when we recognize our biases, identify our assumptions, seek out accurate information, cooperate with others, and behave civilly I find the behavior of Stephen Harper, our current Prime Minister, to be disappointing. He consistently tries to destroy, not debate, those who disagree with him. He chooses to ignore both scientific and economic experts when it comes to crimes and prisons, drug rehabilitation, and approaches to taxation. And he governs as a one-person show, without input from even members of his own party.

The other disturbing thing about the election is the sometimes irrational reaction that some people have had to the election and the candidates. One newspaper story told of a political science student who said "There's a lot I don't like in all the parties. So why would I pick one?" He intends to spoil his ballot.

I would hope that most voters will think things through a little bit more than this young man, and recognize that there are many decisions we have to make where we don't like any of the options, but we still have to choose. And further that if, like the majority of Canadians, you disagree with the way Stephen Harper conducts politics, that you think things though carefully before you vote on May 2. (If you are looking for practical information on voting strategically there is a website called which has more information.)

I debated long and hard whether to write a tip which contains a political stance. If my objection had been solely because I disagreed with someone's policies, I think I would have kept it to myself. But I'm truly concerned about the future of our country if Stephen Harper's approach to politics becomes the norm in Canada.

My hope is that the young people who are learning techniques for better cooperation and decision making don't lose these approaches when they become "adults."

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