Ben Franklin’s decision technique

BFranklinBenjamin Franklin had a life-long interest in finding ways to make himself more effective. It worked. He become a statesman, an inventor, a publisher, a writer… and got his face featured on the hundred-dollar bill. One of his techniques was a simple way to make a difficult decision, specifically whether to do something or not.

Start with two columns, one labeled Pro and the other Con. List all the arguments for taking the action under the Pro column and all arguments against it under Con. So far, pretty standard stuff. Here is the twist, in his own words, as reported by Walter Isaacson in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. “Where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out; if I find a reason pro equal to some two reasons con, I strike out the three” until it becomes clear “where the balance lies.”

Let’s try this on an example decision. Say I’ve just been offered a promising job at another company, but it will require me to do some traveling. Should I take it? I list my pros and cons.

Pros:
Higher salary
More prestigious
Excitement of change
Promotion opportunities
On-site fitness center

Cons:
Requirement to be away from home longer
Business travel hassles
Loyalty to current company
Fear of change
More formal environment
Having to leave friends at current company

There are more cons than pros, possibly indicating it’s a bad choice, but let’s try Franklin’s approach. The more formal environment is of minor concern and the fitness center is of minor interest (I probably won’t use it), so I strike them both. The prestige is nice, just enough to counter my fear of change, so I strike both of those. Here’s what we’re left with:

Pros:
Higher salary
Excitement of change
Promotion opportunities

Cons:
Requirement to be away from home longer
Business travel hassles
Loyalty to current company
Having to leave friends at current company

The higher salary is a big deal, worth the extra travel I’ll need to do, with its hassles and time away from home. So I strike all three of those items. Now I’m left with:

Pros:
Excitement of change
Promotion opportunities

Cons:
Loyalty to current company
Having to leave friends at current company

At this point, I figure the promotion opportunities alone are enough to entice me away from my current company. I can still keep in touch with my friends, and I’ll make new friends at the new job. I decide to accept the offer. You could apply this technique just as well to any choice between two options.

Have you used this technique? Do you know any similar ones? How did they work out for you?

Is that really your goal?

Businessman with Question

Your initial statement of the decision issue is almost always wrong! A common reason is that it focuses on the solution and not the driving need. For example, I might state a decision as, “Which cell phone to buy?” I would then say that my goal is to have a cell phone. But, in fact, what I really want is the ability to communicate away from home. There is no requirement to use cellular technology. If satellite phones were cheap or if Wi-Fi were ubiquitous, those could be solutions that meet my real need just as well. Once I focus on my real goal, the underlying objectives pop out: reliability, voice quality, coverage, and ease of use.

The secret to getting to your real goal lies in one simple word—“why.” Keep asking it until you get to the basic underlying goal. Often, as in this example, you can get to the heart of the matter in a single round. More complex decisions may require drilling down by asking “why” three times to get at the underlying need.

You will often get multiple answers when you ask “why.” This is good. You want to list all the needs and considerations driving this decision. For example, suppose your decision is which house to buy. If you are currently living in an apartment, the “why” sequence might be something like this:

“I want to buy a house.”

“Why?”

“A yard for the kids to play in,
distance from neighbors,
painting and decorating the way we want,
grow our own vegetables,
prestige”

Keep going. Ask “why” again for some of these.

“Distance from neighbors. Why?”

“Quiet,
privacy”

This process moves you from a single goal to specific objectives.  Add drawbacks and constraints, such as cost, to your list. Now you have a solid basis for comparing alternatives. In fact, you’ve opened the door to alternatives that you might not have considered earlier.