Decision Making Is About Process, Not Outcomes

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 02-10-22

I happened to be watching the NFL playoffs recently. The game was going into overtime, and a coin toss determines who gets the ball first. This was the clip, and listen to what the announcer says at the end…

Watch Here 

For those not wanting to watch, he said “the visiting team makes the wrong call” about the coin toss, because the home team won the coin toss. The wrong call? THE WRONG CALL? I was yelling at the TV, perhaps more so than any other moment since I don’t get that invested in football. 

I do get invested in helping people make better decisions. And everything about that statement is wrong, and it represents common thinking about decisions. Those decisions by the visiting team weren’t wrong. In fact, they were perfect. They chose one of two options that had equal outcomes and equal probabilities. The outcome of the decision did not go their way, but this didn’t make them bad decisions. 

If you always wanted to see Winnipeg, going in February is a bad decision. If you go anyway and get some fortunate warm spell and it’s a great trip, that doesn’t make it a good decision. It was still a bad decision that turned out well for you. 

If there is a 90 percent chance of rain and you go for a walk without an umbrella, and it doesn’t rain, you still made a bad decision that turned out well. If you leave for the airport without enough time to make your flight, but all the traffic lights break your way and the flight is delayed just a little and you catch your flight, you made a bad decision that turned out well. 

And the Cincinnati Bengals didn’t make a bad decision because they lost the coin toss, and didn’t make a good decision because they won the game. 

The quality of your decision depends on data, process, criteria, decision rights, and other elements that are all about how the decision is made. If you want to evaluate your decision process, look at whether you could have used different data, or different criteria, or include different people, or when you made the decision. Be very careful about trying to improve your decision-making by looking at the outcome of your decision, as it will often lead you down the wrong path.