Defensive Decision Making

9 Nov

The previous article covered some decision making strategies from two of the winners, Steve Hardiker and Martin Cole, of the Channel 4 TV show, Hunted. Steve and Martin’s winning strategy was a very simple approach to tackling a very complicated and demanding challenge- evading capture from a team of security and intelligence experts for 28 days. The role of a simple method to tackle a complex problem immediately raised the subject of heuristics- experience based rules of thumb, which although imperfect, work effectively most of the time.

Everyone knows and applies some rules of thumb. For example, don’t count your chickens till they’re hatched. An effective rule of thumb I got from evaluating construction site management- imagine each day is going to go wrong. The site managers who applied this rule of thumb performed significantly better than those who did not. It simply helped to better manage risk in seemingly good plans. Another I got from a physiotherapist working in A & E- the expert is someone who knows the patient batter than me. This enabled the physiotherapist to apply an adaptive attitude toward his initial diagnosis and care plans. Many researchers (for example Gigerenzer, 2014, Taleb, 2013) have highlighted the effectiveness of rules of thumb in the most demanding of situations. But why does relatively so little effort go into uncovering and applying these cognitive short cuts which get the job done?

One reason is defensive decision making. Defensive decision making was used by Gigerenzer (2014) to describe how people will choose, construct and use a complex strategy and solution because if things go wrong it is much easier to defend. And this is only natural. If a decision you were involved in went wrong what would you be most comfortable defending- a simple heuristic based plan or a more complicated plan which contained numerous graphs, statistics and procedures? The complexity versus simplicity argument then starts bleeding into ethics and decision making. If a defensive culture takes root, this can have all sorts of consequences. And these consequences can mean that effective simplicity is avoided.

For example, in practice this could mean a choice between company A and company B to provide financial services. Company B supplies the far superior package and is the first choice of the decision maker. Company B is relatively new and relatively small but also easy to work with. The small team means that the expertise present in the proposals and presentations will be applied to the services being offered. On the other hand, company A is a huge multi-national with instant brand recognition. It’s difficult to see how the presentation team will deliver the services, but company A has it’s complex, but well known, client engagement model to take care of that. So the decision maker chooses company A. It might seem like the inferior service, but it’s far easier to justify if things go wrong.

This shouldn’t be taken to mean that there is no place for complexity. Or that complexity is only the result of defensive decision making. It simply argues for an appropriate recognition of simple solutions to complex problems and challenges. I think Einstein described it best-

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”


Taleb, N.N (2013) Anti Fragile- Things which gain from disorder. Penguin

Gigerenzer, G. (2014) Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions. Allen Lane

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