The character Sherlock Holmes once said, "If you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." And so it goes with decision making: if you eliminate the worst choices, whatever remains, however bad, must be your best choice. This is admittedly a cynical way to go about deciding things, but for tough decisions, eliminative logic may be the only way to turn the corner on the pressure you feel and gain momentum toward making a final decision.
If you've created a list of possible choices and need to narrow the field, look for choices that do not meet the minimum bar for the project. You might have included them earlier on because they added to the discussion and provided an opportunity to find hybrid choices, or because the requirements were being reconsidered, but now it's time to cut them loose. Review your documents and requirements lists, check with your customer or customer advocate, and cross off choices that just won't be good enough. If you're lucky, you'll be able to thin the field by more than half and reduce the list to two or three choices that are truly worth considering.
Another tool to help narrow the possibilities is a principle known as Occam's Razor. William of Occam was a medieval philosopher in the 12th century who's credited with using the notion of simplicity to drive decisions. He believed that people often add complexity to situations even though it doesn't help to resolve them. He suggested that the best way to figure things out was to find the simplest explanation and use that first because, most of the time, it was the right explanation (i.e., in modern parlance, keep it simple, stupid).(6)
Occam's Razor refers to the process of trying to cut away all of the unneeded details that get in the way and return to the core issue at the heart of the problem. It also implies that the solution with the greatest odds of being best is the one that has the simplest logic. There might be a promising choice in the list that requires complex and risky engineering or new dependencies on unreliable people or technologies. Applying Occam's Razor, the lack of simplicity and clarity could be a criterion for taking an option out of the running and sticking with the simple and reliable choice.
But to apply Occam's Razor effectively, you need to take time to reflect. When you spend hours pounding away at the same issues, you eventually lose perspective. When all the choices start looking the same, it's time to get away. Go for a walk, get some coffee with a friend, or do anything to clear your mind and think about something else. You need to be able to look at the choices with a clear and fresh mind in order to make an effective decision, and you can't do that if you continue to stare at it all day.
Reflection is highly underrated as a decision-making tool. To reflect means to step back and allow all of the information you've been working with to sink in. Often, real understanding happens only when we relax and allow our brains to process all of the information we've thrown at it. I find doing something physical like going for a run or walk is the best way to allow my mind to relax. Other times, doing something purely for fun does the trick, like participating in a Nerf fight, watching a good movie, or playing with my dog. It's also hard to beat a good night's sleep (perhaps preceded by a collaborative romp between the sheets) for clearing the mind. But everyone is different, and you have to figure out for yourself the best way to give your mind time to digest everything you've been thinking about.
When you do come back to your comparison list, briefly remind yourself what the core issues are. Then, thinking of Occam, look at the alternatives and ask yourself which choice provides the simplest way to solve the problem at hand. The simplest choice might not promise the best possible outcome, but because of its simplicity, it might have the greatest odds of successfully resolving the problem to a satisfactory level.
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