Choice, decision making and judgment; is your relationship constructive or destructive?

What is NEW in this article about decision making?

The new part explains the relationship between choices, decisions and judgement and how our questions indicate if our relationship is curious and constructive OR linear, framed, and destructive.  This article is part of a masterclass I have been creating on how we, as directors and those in leadership, can improve our choices, decisions and judgements using data and be better ancestors. 

This article is not another self-help or “use this framework to improve decision making”; it is for the curious and those who ask questions on their journey. The refelction at the end should be "How does this article affect our views on the automation of decision making and the use of AI?"

Why is this an important topic?

Our individual and unique view of the world comprises layers of constructs created by our personality, biases, preferences, facts, and ideas learnt from past experiences.  These constructs are better known as “mental models”, which frame how we individually make sense of or align to the world. We continually develop sense-making frameworks, models, and maps in our brains that frame what we perceive as reality, thus affecting our behaviour and, consequently, our Choices, decisions, and Judgments (CDJ).

Whilst we don’t like it, our mental model frames how we see the world.  I love how Cassie Kozyrkov (chief decision-maker at Google) describes in this article using the toss of a coin to determine how you see the world.  Statistics predict one aspect of chance but not how you perceive the results when the coin has landed, and the outcome is known but not to you. My dad taught me to toss the coins a few more times until I got the result I wanted. It was a reinforcement model that I had made the right decision from the possible two choices.  I would also suggest following and reading Lisa Feldman Barrett work, especially her new book “seven and a half lessons about the brain.” She says that we must grasp that everything we perceive as reality is, in fact, constructed from fragments, and we have no idea what reality really is.  (yes, this is reinforcement bias - I am quoting things to frame you that align to my model)

In our digital era, new uncertainty, quantum risk, and more ambiguity constantly challenge our mental models and how we accommodate and make sense.  The volume of noise and signals coming into our brains is high, but we filter and convert it all into something that has meaning to each of us according to our own unique mental model.  We all reach different interpretations about what is happening, which creates frustration, confusion and misalignment. We use questions to clarify and check our understanding, assumptions and quality of information. Slight differences always remain; the unsaid, mislead, guided, incentivised, and overconfidence, unfortunately, takes us from the simple to correct misalignments; to tension, conflict and entrenchment.

This topic matters as directors are mandated to make decisions, but we find we are operating with misalignments, tensions, compromises, and outright conflict.  This happens as the individuals sitting at the same table have agency (and their own mental models and incentives). We are unsure if we have the right choices or are clear about our judgment’s unintended consequences or long-term impact. We have to talk about it. 

We should unpack our relationship with choice, decision and judgement as mental models, hierarchy and rules constrain us. This article is not about “how to ask better questions”, nor if you should (as some questions we don’t want the answer to), but how to determine if you, your team or your company has a constructive or destructive relationship with CDJ. 


When talking about CDJ, you would imagine that in 2021 that starting from the definitions should help, but it does not, as there is a recursive loop of using one definition to define the other words, which define themselves.  Amazingly there are professional bodies for decision making and judgement; alas, even these cannot agree on how to define or clearly demark between intent and actions. Our base problem is that:  everything framed with a maths or data mind: is a decision. Everything is a choice when framed by a psychologist or social scientist. To someone who has authority and responsibility or plays with complexity, everything looks like a judgment.  Confusingly everything is an opinion to a judge!

Everything framed with a maths or data mind: is a decision. Everything is a choice when framed by a psychologist or social scientist. To someone who has authority and responsibility or plays with complexity, everything looks like a judgment.  Confusingly everything is an opinion to a judge!

Here are the definitions from the Collins and Oxford dictionaries  

Choice  [countable noun] If there is a choice of things, there are several of them, and you can choose the one you want.  [countable noun] Your choice is someone or something that you choose from a range of things. Collins  OR  [countable] an act of choosing between two or more possibilities; something that you can choose  [uncountable] the right to choose; the possibility of choosing Oxford Dictionary

Decisions  [countable noun] When you make a decision, you choose what should be done or which is the best of various possible actions.  [uncountable noun] Decision is the act of deciding something or the need to decide something Collins  OR  [countable] a choice or judgement that you make after thinking and talking about what is the best thing to do  [uncountable] the process of deciding something Oxford Dictionary

Judgment [uncountable noun] is the ability to make sensible guesses about a situation or sensible decisions about what to do.  [variable noun] A judgment is an opinion that you have or express after thinking carefully about something  Collins  OR  [uncountable] the ability to make sensible decisions after carefully considering the best thing to do; [countable, uncountable] an opinion that you form about something after thinking about it carefully; the act of making this opinion known to others Oxford Dictionary

Therefore, a judgment is the ability to make a sensible decision about a choice, which requires judgment about which choices to pick. As Yoda would say, “wise decision you make, stupid choices your judgement however selected.”

The timeless challenges of Choices, Decisions and Judgment (CDJ)

“I change my mind as the data changes” is a modern digital age sentiment from the economist John Maynard Keynes who is quoted to have said, "When the facts change, I change my mind." It was likely adapted from an early human bias where leadership in war and battles refused to change their mind even when the facts were in, and they had been proven wrong. 

Choices, decisions and judgement are not difficult if you relinquish your values, ethics and blindly follow the incentives or can fully appreciate the impact of your actions. Still, we know it is just not that simple. We have heuristics to remove choice rather than create more and ways to find more data and facts to become more informed, but without knowing if the new data is helpful or not.  Ultimately, at some point, you have to make a choice, decision or judgement. 

The diagram below represents some of the timeless challenges of CDJ, which is a balance between what we know and don’t know.  We have the experience that creates the ghosts of the past, flighting the voices of the present as we try to decide what the spirits of the future hold, whilst being held accountable for the decisions we make. 

The point here is that it is always possible to find a reason why to act or not to act and the timeless challenge remains that there is no perfect choice, decision or judgment.  However, over time and because we have choices we can make decisions that improve our judgement which means we can find and select the right choices.  This is a constructive relationship between CDJ.  A destructive relationship would be to not like the choices we face, procrastinate in the hope a better choice occurs or maybe lose a choice where the decision is made for you. You don’t improve your judgment and so you cannot determine if the next choice is any better - it is linear.  

Is the CDJ relationship about framing?

From the definition section at the beginning of this article, it was evident that there is a high degree of overlap and dependency between choice, decision and judgment.  As highlighted in the previous section it can become complex very quickly but our brain (mental models) demand patterns to make sense of it and so we tend to come back to simple linear narratives which do not do them (choice, decisions, judgment) justice. What we have realised but tend not to verbalise is that none of our (mental) models or frameworks work in all cases and indeed all models about choice, decision and judgment fail.  This is why there is always a new book on the topic with new self-help content that you have not seen before, and we cling to a hope that the next model will work better - alas they don’t. I am aware of over 100 decision support models and I expect I have not really scratched the surface.   An example below puts choice, decision and judgment on a continuum between your own north star and that for a shared tribe, community or society.  It does not really work.  White flag time. 

What we have realised but tend not to verbalise is that none of our (mental) models or frameworks work in all cases and indeed all models about choice, decision and judgment fail.

#Lockdowns have enabled many social experiments.  One has been about choice and buying behaviour.  As we moved our shopping for food online and therefore missed the in store sale specials, end of gondea, carefully placed items next to each other, those large piled up offers in the entrance and the sweets at the exit, our patterns have changed as choice became limited.  We became creatures of habit, buying largely the same items, which reduce in variance over time.  (This also highlights that the UI and UX for shopping sucks.)  The decision to shop was removed from us, and our choices fell, but the variety was still there.  So much for the Web creating perfect information or the algorithm knowing what you would want. 

As an alternative, we can determine that CDJ will change depending on the context right now and the perception those facing the issue have.  The figure below highlights three examples but what we rapidly conclude is that complexity in CDJ is generated by speed, volume, consequences, data, sense of enquiry, situation and our own mental models. Every known variable adds layers.

Where are we up to and where next?

So far, we have explored that there is a relationship between choices, decisions and judgements. We, however, tend to focus on one of them (decision making) as it looks the most difficult, and the others are just linkages. However, this preference for “decision making” fails to understand if we are using the right word to describe the action we are taking. There is no doubt that the word decision is preferable as it is perceived as more powerful and important than choice or judgment. The relationship between them is causal, complex and relational, and we are framed, educated and incentivised to the simple linear view and a single narrative. The reality is that judgement helps frame our choices which we decide on that improve our judgment skills — they are not linear; they are circular. They are circular as we all have agency. 

 The reality is that judgement helps frame our choices, which we decide on, that improve our judgment skills

We know the linear models are broken as there is no universal tool to help with choice, decision and judgement.  The next part is to explain the relationship we have between choices, decisions and judgement and how our questions indicate if it is constructive and curious OR linear, framed and destructive.

We tend to focus on the decision and choice axis. If we can eliminate bad choices we can improve decisions, but ignore the fact that it is judgment skills that help find the right choice. Procrastination as a decision tool is framed that time will remove choice and so a decision becomes easier, either because a choice has been removed or more data supports one option. More data does not make decision-making easier; nor does it guarantee to make it better.  

Worthy of note is that academic work about “decision-making” will always seek to create the most complex solution because academics are incentivised to use the most advanced and new thinking (publication, referencing, research and reputation). Sometimes tossing a coin is the perfect solution.   The more we see the complex, the less we will accept the simple.  In a linear world where we view choice, decision and judgment as a progression line, where we are given choices when young and make a judgement when we are old and wise ignore that we learn and need to exercise all three all the time to become more proficient at decision making.  Decision making is not a task or an end game. 

As a thought experiment: if you had all the data in the world and all the compute power possible to run a perfect forecast model, would you need to make further choices, decisions or judgments?  To reach your view I assume you have decided to either give each human full agency or you have taken our individual agency away.  Now in my definition of data, which might be different to yours, how we all behave with our agency is just data, which opens up a can of worms for each of us. Can you have full agency (freewill) and it all still be modelled? What do we mean about behavioural modelling, agency, data and even more precisely all data?

Getting to one data set, one tool, one choice hides layers of complexity which looks good for one better decision but is unlikely to be a long term solution to improving choices, decisions and judgment.  You have/had choice, you make/made decisions, you exhibit/exercise judgment.  Judgement supports you in finding choices. 

How the questions we ask inform us! 

The questions you are currently asking will help inform you where you are in the cycle, indeed if you already have closed the loop and have a constructive cycle or a linear open loop distructure relationship with choice, decisions and judgment. 

The circular framing means depending on the stage we are in a process we will be asking different questions.  Given that a board has to deal with many situations all at different stages at every meeting, we should see all these questions asked at every meeting, just framed to different agenda items.  If there is no variation in questions,  surely it tells us something.  Indeed are we using our improvement at each stage to further improve the next outcome.  

The destructive “cycle” is not circular but is a linear model as it is fundamentally disconnected from a learning based idea using choice and judgement and focussed on Better Decision making. It depends on the idea that by reading a new book or going on a new decision making course that we will get better.  The iteration of improvement is an external influence.  Perhaps it is mentoring or coaching and they (mentors) keep you from closing the loop as they either don’t know or it would not support their business model. Indeed books, education and courses have no interest in you closing the loop and always making you believe in a new tool, method, process - it is their business model!

In the boardroom or in the senior management meetings is someone always asking the same questions?  Does the agenda mean that as a team individuals are unable to ask different questions or is it that others are influencing the agenda to keep it framed to the decisions and outcomes they want.  Why enable the asking for more data when the choice they want you to decide on and agree with is already the best supported case (railroaded).  Do you have observers or assessors who look at the questions you ask as a team and determine if you are asking the right questions? (something I am learning to do)  Can skills in choice, decision and judgment be determined by the questions asked in the meetings? (something I am exploring)

A key question I often come back to when thinking about choice, decisions and judgment is “What are we optimising for?” I find the model below a helpful guide to understand the framing.  In a linear model it would present moving from single choice in the lower left to complex judgment in the top right. In a learning cyclic model, choice, decision and judgement equally applies, however the lower left is a better learning and experience gaining context for mentoring, or succession planning, than the top right. 

Why does this matter, because right now we have increasing data along with more vulnerabilities, ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty. The volume of moving variables (change) and the rate of change breaks the linear model as you can never match the model at hand to the situation you face.  There is a need to move from linear ideas of choice, decisions and judgment to a circular one.  Linear thinking is the best model when there are limited options and there is stability.  We now have many options, increasing variables and more instability.  

As your company is owned by no-one (yes you read that right - follow this link if you need to read more on this, a company owns itself) and a company cannot think for itself and therefore we (the directors) have to do the thinking for it.  We are given in law the authority and responsibility to act on behalf of the company.  This is “fiduciary duty”.  It is the reason why directors need to move from a linear perspective of decision making to a circular improvement learning process of choice, decision making and judgement.

My proposal to help support better governance is that we request companies publish the questions asked in a board meeting. Not the answers, but definitely the questions.