I’m Risk-Averse, But That Doesn’t Mean I Have To Like It

February 3, 2020

I have a confession to make. It’s taken me months to write this blog. On my desktop right now are probably about 10 different Word docs, all named various versions of “decision-making blog.” The irony is not lost on me. I’m writing a blog about decision-making, but when left to my own devices I often struggle with making any. My particular problem is procrastination brought on by risk aversion — when I have to chart a way forward through a complex set of variables, or determine the best choice among a multitude of options, my inclination is to delay. I wait for more information, I’ll second guess myself, I’ll seek out second (and third, and fourth…) opinions.

In some ways, this is what makes me good at my job. As a strategy, evaluation and learning specialist, I’m trained in a certain style of decision-making that includes consulting the relevant evidence base, triangulating my analysis, and deliberately surfacing any potential biases and assumptions. I try to make sure my decisions are thoughtful, informed, and focused on achieving the best possible outcome. But often, this means that my decisions are also not what I’d describe as bold. So while I’m often the one advising people to be more deliberate and methodical in their decision-making, I’m secretly a little envious of people who seem so ready to take those big leaps of faith.

Because the truth is that in the fast-changing spaces in which social change organizations work, my approach to decision-making actually might not be ideal: the evidence might not be sufficient, the outcomes may not be predictable, and the window to act might be too narrow to allow for much analysis and consultation. I’ve long wondered: what does it take to make bolder choices? What does good decision-making look like in uncertain contexts? In such fast-changing and turbulent times, is it okay to say “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I still think we should do X?” What does it really mean to be more comfortable with risk?

About a year ago, I started working with Ian David Moss on a project about risk-taking, in part to try to answer some of these questions. We wanted to examine some common assumptions about risk-taking and how we can differentiate between “good” and “bad” risk, particularly in uncertain contexts. We ended up writing a paper called “What We Should Talk About When We Talk About Risk,” which explores some ideas for navigating scenarios where the traditional rules of evidence-based decision-making may not apply. Based on the paper, Ian and I identified seven “principles” for decision-making in risky or uncertain contexts:

  1. Be intentional: give proper weight to the decisions that really matter.
  2. Frame decisions: be explicit about what decision is being made, and why.
  3. Recognize complexity: invest in understanding the system to help you improve your predictions.
  4. Navigate uncertainty: be clear about whether new information would change your mind.
  5. Use information: prioritize information that would help you reduce uncertainty.
  6. Right-size analysis: be realistic about the degree to which information will help you reduce uncertainty or change your decision.
  7. Focus on the future: use forecasting to identify potential outcomes, and be explicit about their likelihood.

Of course, none of these principles are a silver bullet for making the right decision, and there are inherent tensions between the principles that calls for balance and calibration depending on the type of decision being made. As we note in the paper, “getting it right” is going to remain an elusive goal – but we can’t let fear of making a bad decision keep us from making the right one, or even any one.

I’ve found myself thinking about these principles a lot when I’m facing a big decision, particularly when I catch myself falling into old habits that delay, but don’t necessarily improve, the decisions I make. Meanwhile, Ian and I have been actively exploring what this means for Democracy Fund’s strategy, impact, and learning practice – and specifically how our decision-making processes can build in more room for complexity, uncertainty, and multiple futures. I hope you find some helpful insights from this paper, and that it might spark some interesting conversations. I’d love to hear what you’re thinking when it comes to good decision-making. Please check out the SSIR webinar that Ian and I are doing on this topic on February 12, or reach out to me on Twitter, @lizruedy.

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