Managing undue complexity and decision fatigue
I once knew a wise man who said what matters most as a leader is to make a decision, any decision. The real danger is dithering: while decisions can be changed, so the logic goes, indecision kills. But a recent New York Times article explains that there could be something worse: “decision fatigue.”
Decision fatigue means that we can only make so many decisions before we run out of the capacity to do so reliably. Given how many (often unimportant) choices each of us make in our day-to-day lives as consumers, this can be very troublesome. Even picking out toothpaste is now riddled with complexity and excess choice. No disrespect to the folks at Colgate, but shouldn’t that willpower be saved for decisions that actually matter?
The Times article argues that even obesity rates can be partially explained by decision fatigue: if you’re spending all month making stressful micro-decisions, you’re more likely to suffer a lapse in judgment that puts you in line for fast food. Across all segments, spending all day making small and tedious decisions makes us impulsive and unsophisticated when it’s time to tackle bigger ones.
To take advantage of flat design and decentralization, we need thoughtfully designed tools.
The same applies in business. In a recent effort to be more responsive and take out costly and inefficient bureaucracy, companies are looking to flatten and decentralize. This means putting “decision support tools” in the hands of more employees and empowering them to make decisions in-line with the company’s overall strategy.
But what about the tools themselves: How many decision support tools are so overcomplicated that they leave us too drained to see the big picture? How many pointless, attention-sapping distractions get in the way and delay actual work? When was the last time a piece of software actually made work easier?
To take advantage of flat design and decentralization, we need thoughtfully designed tools. Tools that offer alternatives based on historic best practices, and spare users from making decisions that don’t matter while adding needless complexity. Waste of time, attention, and willpower is just as bad if not worse than wasting cash.
Already entire companies have been built on removing unnecessary options from the customer experience; popular consumer tech is looking more-and-more appliance-like; and undue complication is becoming a lightning rod for criticism. Needless complexity has become a tax on decisiveness that no company can afford to pay.
With respect to my wise friend, the right decision isn’t just any decision: it’s the decision made in the right context, at the right time, after the right amount of reflection.
We need tools that make our best better—anything else is a liability.