Many years ago, I got into Decision Analysis at the hands of my good friend Larry Philips of the London School of Economics. I learnt not just the techniques but also a whole conceptual and philosophical framework. One thing, above all, got stuck in my brain: the relentless need to seek, bring and assess options. Suddenly I learnt that the world before me was richer than it appeared, in the rather matter of fact business environment. It may not sound like a big deal, but options were understated in the scientific environment in which I was working at that time within the pharmaceutical industry. How come? You may ask. Bear with me.
If I had to write a ‘Theory of Everything’, section on ‘Views of the World’, chapter on ‘Decision Making’, and I had very limited space, this is what I would say. There are two types of people: ‘Therefore People’ and ‘However People’. The ‘Therefore People’ think this way: ‘We’ve got data on A, the results on B, the views of C, what we have learnt before from D, and resources E, therefore we must do X’. The ‘However People’ think this way: ‘We’ve got data on A, the results on B, the views of C, what we have learnt before from D, and resources E, therefore it looks like we should do X’ – at this point, 3:45 pm, there is great hope in the room that the meeting will finish just in time to catch the 6pm plane back home – ‘However, we could consider X and Y, because although all the variables are solid, we have not taken into account other criteria. Ladies and Gentlemen, we have options, we don’t have to just do X!’.
Needless to say ‘Therefore People’ and ‘However People’ tend to drive each other mad. [By the way, always beware of the 3:45 pm syndrome. This is that point in the agenda, the final part of the day, when somebody launches a grenade such as ‘I think the question we have been trying to answer since 9 in the morning is the wrong question’, or even one more bazooka style ‘But what is the strategy? We don’t seem to have one!’].
In my experience, for every ‘However’ person I find three or more ‘Therefore’ ones. Some scientific and technological environments are ‘Therefore Cultures’ (believe me, it sounds counterintuitive). Some corporate environments fuel the ‘Therefore’ further with the collective obsession with ‘closure’, to ‘get a resolution’, ‘make a decision’, ‘reduce uncertainty at all costs’. In a Therefore Benign Dictatorship, ‘However’ people are very irritating and a bit of a second-class citizens.
I wish I could claim here that there is a ‘Therefore’ gene and a ‘However’ gene that would explain the differences between people. I am cynically sympathetic to the idea. But I know that there will be hundreds of social factors that would shape the way our brain heuristics work, and that would happen as early as our primary education.
My favourite word for my work with organizations is ‘possibilities’. Possibilities need ‘However’ thinking: the need to look at options, to expect some contrarian views, to re-frame questions and anything else that prevents you from the trap of the single-track; one view, one path.
Perhaps we could just accept that, in many circumstances, there is only a clear ‘therefore’ in waiting. That would be sensible. However…