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  • Writer's pictureDavid A. Van Wie

A Dozen "First Principles" To Help Make Difficult Decisions When You Don’t Have Enough Inf

All of us, at one time or another, face important and difficult decisions with sketchy information. Whether you are a senior executive, an elected official, or just Mommy or Daddy, you may have to make a decision where you must rely on “First Principles” to consider your options, and find a path to a decision that will let you sleep at night.

When I served in the Maine legislature, and previously as a state agency head, I sometimes found myself faced with decisions that had to be made in a very limited period of time, with no opportunity to fully comprehend all the background and complexity of the issues. So I found myself resorting to First Principles to question the advocates, and to determine how, or if, I would make a decision. One day, I started writing down the First Principles I found myself using so frequently.

First Principles are the most basic questions of logic, fairness, ethics, and, yes, even science and statistics. They are rarely listed as formal decision criteria in policies or rules. They often underlie other criteria, and work beneath the surface.

Many of us apply First Principles without even realizing we are doing it, especially when we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory, where our expertise in the subject matter is scant, or the subtleties of the argument elude us. Or where we have to consider two or more unpalatable alternatives.

There is no magic list of First Principles. I provide here a dozen of the most common ones I have applied to the crisis du jour in a business or policy-making setting.

  1. Will the results of my decision be permanent? Could the decision and its consequences be reversed later? How hard would that be? Once we make a choice and start to execute a plan or strategy, can we change course with new information? Do we have an exit strategy for backing out, cutting our losses, or moving to Plan B?

  2. Who are the possible winners and losers? For those affected, do they have any recourse? Do they have an opportunity to respond, to appeal to another level, or adjust without serious or permanent harm? For some, the result of a decision may be a minor hassle, a higher cost, or they will simply be unhappy, but the results are tolerable; for others, it might really be the end of the line.

  3. Will this decision set a precedent? What impact will a precedent have? Will this lead to a slippery slope for other similar issues? (Beware slippery slope arguments. They are often the purview of the intellectually lazy, when someone is trying to inject fear or uncertainty into an argument. Only rarely do slippery slope arguments hold water.)

  4. Am I the one who must decide, and why? Should someone else be settling this issue instead… another department, jurisdiction, or level of authority? Does the answer really have to come from me, or should I instead provide some guidance or a process for how others should make a decision themselves?

  5. Am I dealing with the real fundamental issue? Or is this just a symptom of a larger problem? Is this problem a cover for a different issue that is really the heart of the matter? How can we tackle the deeper issue? How much of the problem (and solution) is really in my (our) control? What is not in my (our) control and how will that impact the results of my decision?

  6. Do we have to decide now? If we wait, will things get worse or could they get better? Would further study help? What is the likelihood that more time or more information will actually change the answer? If we had to decide in one hour, what would the answer be?

  7. Regarding the critical facts: what is really known? What is unknowable? Is the theory behind the facts, the science or math of the problem well established, or shaky and ripe for dispute? If the facts are truly unknowable (in a realistic time frame), what should we base our decision on?

  8. How many data points or examples do we have? Are we making a decision based on just one or two instances, when the wider problem might be very different? Do we really have enough observations or examples to see a trend or a pattern? How does this affect our “statistical confidence”?

  9. Is this “policy by anecdote”? Should we be making a blanket policy based on a singular set of emotional circumstances? Lawyers have an adage: “hard cases make bad law,” meaning that general policies should not be set based on an extreme case. Rather, policies should be based on more typical circumstances with provisions for considering extreme situations.

  10. Must the result be black and white, or should there be room for judgment and “gray area”? Can we design a decision or policy that allows for reasoned judgment rather than rely on a bold line? If you go with the latter, people will say “you can’t apply a one-size-fits-all solution.” If you go with the former, you may be accused of “making up the rules as you go along”. This is a common conundrum for decision-makers.

  11. Does the Golden Rule apply? What notions of fairness should be applied to the problem? What would happen if the tables were turned, and the opposite parties had to live with the same result?

  12. What if everyone does this, or wanted the same result? Would the logic hold if this were applied universally? What happens if the “law of large numbers” applies?

I could go on. Once you get into this mode of thinking, it becomes easier and easier to think of First Principles that might apply in a specific context, be it political, business or personal. I encourage you to think of principles or questions I have left out. And keep your own secret list that you can pull out when you have a tough decision gnawing at you.

The important thing is to think about the fundamental, universal criteria that go into decision-making and problem-solving, regardless of the particulars and weight of evidence available for consideration. It is also important to be sure you are properly evaluating the available facts, assumptions, values and perceptions sprinkled through the arguments (see my previous blog post: Colorful Arguments).

Spend a few minutes and think about how (or if) you have applied these First Principles in your most important decisions during the past year. Discuss these ideas with your colleagues and see how they react. If you identify more First Principles that you can use in the future, please pass them along to me.

© 2016 David A. Van Wie

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