Spoilt for choice

Jam - sWhy we struggle to make simple decisions…

I was recently working with a charity client to help them develop new streams of earned income. It began, as these projects often do, with a series of one-to-one calls with each member of the team, to start drawing out their thoughts and ideas.

For most organisations, the process of generating new ideas is like drawing water from a stream, although occasionally, it can be a bit like drawing blood from a stone. But this was, well, more like drinking from a fire hose.

As one of the team summarised towards the end of our call: “We have no shortage of ideas. In fact, we’ve got loads of them. And I think that’s part of the problem.”

And it was true, through that handful of calls they collectively shared with me over 250 different potential lines of business. It’s fantastic to start a project with such a vast array of potential, but it’s not surprising they hadn’t got too far with any of them.

As the old saying goes, a dog can’t chase two hares at same time, let alone 250.

We all tend to spread ourselves too thin. Whether it’s out of personal passions, or a fear of missing out, or the inability to say no. We want to believe that by doing more we will achieve more. But invariably, the opposite is true.

Overloading ourselves and our people actually slows progress, and while giving people agency and choice is great for motivation and engagement, an overload of choice can kill it altogether.

Just over 20 years ago, researchers Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper showed this in a series of social experiments, one of which offered one set of people a choice of six different jams, and another, a choice of 24 different ones.

Both sets of people tasted about the same number of jams, but while 30% of the first group went on to buy a jar, only 3% of the second group bought one. The sheer number of options made them too afraid to choose – concerned that their choice might be the wrong one.

And they were justified in that fear – those who chose from a selection of six turned out to be far more satisfied with their jam than those who selected from a much larger range. The same person could make the same choice of the same jam, yet feel less satisfied with it, simply because of the number of other options they had been presented with.

It’s often said that strategy is as much about choosing what not to do, as it is about choosing what to do. And in a complex world with expansive thinking, that array of possibilities can be bewildering.

But there are three simple steps to making fast, confident choices, even from a vast array of options. The first is to cluster the options, which in organisational terms means looking for similarities and synergies – things which naturally fit together.

The second is to ask: “If we only did one of those clusters to begin with, which would it be?” Mentally reframing the choice as hypothetical (if) and temporary (to begin with), allows you to step away from the fear of being wrong, just far enough to see which choice might be right.

But the third, and most important step, is to have a box, either physically or metaphorically, on which is written: “Open next year”, into which all the other ideas can go. They are not lost. They are not passed over. They are merely waiting. This is how you and your people can let go.

Strategic leadership is all about appreciating, but then rapidly rationalising all those choices to a manageable number, and then working out which one, or maybe two, the organisation should focus on first.

So, if you could only choose one, what would be your single priority for the next year or two?

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