Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Thinking Toolkit.

There are some roads you must walk yourself,
Just you and your own Faith: nothing else.
And on those dark days you're bound to go through,
Here's something to hold on to.
- from lyrics to One Believer, by Diamond Rio

takcheck poses a difficult scenario and asks how a choice could possibly be made. The scenario is similar to the life choice I currently face. This emigration situation and the associated issues, are undoubtedly the hardest challenges I have ever had to make so far in my life.

There is no point going into details. Such life decisions will be intensely personal for each person. And the circumstances are different for each person. However the approach to the issue and factors to consider may be generic enough to extrapolate into an generic post.

Know the Decision Horizon

The concept of a decision horizon was first introduced to me in a book D. gave me back in the university days. It is the latest date/time by which a decision has to be made. Often bounded by multiple factors. In takchek's scenario, it could be the acceptance date for the college application. Or in my case, the "hard" limit would be the V1 and V2 dates tracked by the
countdown clock.

The other aspect sometimes ignored is the cost of calculation and information gathering. Even in decision where there is minimal material cost of gathering and analysing information, there could be a huge emotional cost involved. It may be wise to place an arbitary limit to the amount of effort and heartache placed into considering a complex decision. Analysis paralysis has a very high cost indeed.

Knowing the decision horizon avoids the pitfall of rushing into a premature decision, or wasting resources considering an issue after a time when it does not matter any more.

No Green Wave

A traffic "green wave" is a condition where a route has the fortunate (or deliberate) setup where all the the traffic lights are green as the vehicle reaches each junction, resulting a very smooth trip with little delays. This is one of the hardest mental adjustments I have had to make. Growing up in Singapore, we tend to get indoctrinated with the national '
kiasu' and 'kiasi' psych. We are taught that inaction (and indifference) is the most acceptable form of behaviour when the merits of the situation are not clear and the prediction of possible results are murky.

In complex life decisions, if we are going to sit around waiting for every thing to fall into place, for all the stars to be in aligment, to get all the ducks in a row.. we are going to be frozen for a very long time. There are no green waves when looking at tough situations in life.

There are no absolute guarantees in life. Except maybe death and the speed of light. With such difficult situations, we just have to try to find a acceptable
solution under the constraints.

Identify Constraints

This one is controversial. Taking this approach would have critics accusing me of being "negative". My retort would be to offer
the Stockdale Paradox. With most of the easy decisions in life, there are little constraints and many options available to choose from. With the difficult decisions, it often looks like there are no answers in an ocean of obstacles.

In such cases, the more reasonable approach would be to identify the contraints and the costs of possibly removing each constraint. Once all the contraints have been documented, it becomes easier to see if there are any valid options left available. If there are no acceptable options available, then progressively higher costs must be paid to remove or reduce the existing constraints to 'free up' an acceptable solution.

Unask the Question

The problem here is with the framing. Often we define the problem in a sloppy manner. We end up solving the wrong question, or waste our energy resolving other issues that are tangential to the main challenge at hand.
Saavik: Admiral, may I ask you a question?
Kirk: What's on your mind, Lieutenant?
Saavik: The Kobayashi Maru, sir.
Kirk: Are you asking me if we're playing out that scenario now?
Saavik: On the test, sir. Will you tell me what you did? I would really like to know.
McCoy: Lieutenant, you are looking at the only Starfleet cadet who ever beat the no-win scenario.
Saavik: How?
Kirk: I reprogrammed the simulation so it was possible to rescue the ship.
Saavik: What?
David Marcus: He cheated.
Kirk: I changed the conditions of the test. I got a commendation for original thinking. I don't like to lose.
Saavik: Then you never faced that situation. Faced death.
Kirk: I don't believe in the no-win scenario.
- from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan
For background details, see the wikipedia entry on the Kobayashi Maru scenario.

The great thing about life in general is that it allows us to cheat by refactoring problems. More often than not, a seemingly insurmountable situation is resulting from defining the constraints and intended goal(s) in a too restrictive manner. Gaming the system has gotten a bad reputation in social human behaviour in recent years. However I feel that it is still a very essential tool of solving complex life problems.


There are also an assortment of other tools that I use to try to break down difficult decisions.

Imitate and Adapt

Have others solved the issue previously, or have encountered similiar scenarios? Study what others have done in such situations and their subsequent results from their actions. Modify tactics and adopt for use accordingly. Seek
directions left by prior travellers on similar journeys.

Challenge Dichotomy

Oftentimes decisions are hastily expressed in an initial binary form with the two choices diagrammatically opposed. For example, the emigration decision can be expressed as a false dichotomy "to stay OR to go", not considering other possibilities straddling both options. Not to say that all black/white options are wrong - but we have to keep in mind that most life situations are multiple realities of gray.

Invert. Always Invert

Invert the situation. Intentionally consider it from a different persepective. Reverse selected critical factors. Exaggerate selected criteria. Ignore selected areas. This is a useful trick to try to "expand" the range of thinking involved when brainstorming for solutions. In an earlier post, I used this trick previously in thinking about the
apparent inconsistency between seemingly large numbers of dissatisfied Singaporeans versus the small number of Singaporeans who actually emigrate.

The Right Tools

Make sure we are using the
appropriate mental models for the job. Here in materialistic Singapore, we tend to over-emphasis that which can be easily measured and ignore that which cannot be counted. Be aware that just because we cannot quantify something does not mean it is irrelevant or unimportant in the decision process.

Miscellaneous Notes

  • Every course of action has an associated cost to be paid. Cost are not just material (financial) but could also be social, mental, emotional, etc.

  • Consider second- and third-order effects. Think abut how an action will impact the long term odds of success, not just the short term "correction" that is desired. It is possible to over-correct in the short run, leading to an unstable system in the long run. Remember to consider short term actions in the context of the the larger system stability.

  • Human nature tends to underestimate the multiplication of small probabilities and to overestimate the single low-probability events. In other words: We tend to focus too much about single isolated "low-chance" event of disaster. And we tend to not worry enough in situations where a large number of these "low-chance" screw-up events are accumulating.

  • Watch the behavioural biases. Human decision making is fraught with a myraid of irrational biases. Granted, not all decisions have to be rational ones. However we still need to be aware of our inherent biases so that at least even if we are making an irrational decision, at least it will be an informed irrational decision.

  • Indecision is a decision. To procrastinate beyond the decison horizon is to intentionally chose the de-facto option. The act of not choosing is a choice to abdicate responsibility.

  • Write it down. My preferred format is PMI (plus, minus, interesting) and a multi-branched non-binary decision tree. A rough Gantt chart also helps to in the consideration of planning timelines and to identify dependencies and critical paths.

  • Explain it to a third (disinterested) observer. If I cannot express it to somebody else, I obviously do not understand the situation clearly myself.


If just one person believes in you,
Deep enough, and strong enough,
believes in you...
Hard enough, and long enough,
It stands to reason, that someone else will think
"If he can do it, I can do it."
- lyrics to Just One Person, from the Snoopy musical


Blogger Mr Wang Says So said...

You'll probably enjoy this book:

It's about decision-making and the tools you can use.

Selling in local bookstores too.

May 26, 2005 6:28 PM  
Blogger idigworms said...

Just One Person, good tune.

Snoopy The Musical

September 03, 2005 6:21 AM  

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