The great balancing act for decision makers

How often have you given up on making a decision because your goals were pulling you in opposite directions? Any decision worth your time will have conflicting goals. Cost vs. benefit. Risk vs. reward. You can’t have it all, even if you had unlimited money. My ideal house is on a lake in the woods, surrounded by quiet, natural beauty and within walking distance of world-class theater and gourmet restaurants. It doesn’t exist! Something has to go.

One of my former engineering colleagues had a sign in his office that said, “Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick two.” My experience is that often you can’t even get two. Usually it’s good enough, fast enough and cheap enough. It’s all about balance.

Here’s a common technique for making a decision with multiple goals that is almost always guaranteed to give you the wrong answer. Choose the most important goal and optimize for that. I’ve worked on many Smart Highway projects, applying digital technology to improve the use of the roadways. There are many goals and considerations here, including safety, roadway capacity, shorter travel times and minimal environmental effects. Anyone you ask will tell you that the most important of these is safety. Suppose you design a highway focusing on this goal alone. Simple solution. Close all the roads. Perfect safety. Perfectly useless.

Facing conflicting goals is probably the biggest hurdle for decision makers. You need to balance the interests of various stakeholders as well as near- and long-term costs and benefits. In my next post, I’ll have a quick technique for balancing conflicting goals for the best decision possible.

How do you handle conflicting goals?

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