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The challenges of decision making

October 22, 2011

I was speaking yesterday to students of Public Policy at the Cornell Institute of Public Affairs and one of them was keen to know how decisions were made by me. People in this domain will realize that decision-making is indeed critical whether at a personal level or in the public space. It is all the more visible and crucial when one is operating in the public policy space wherein decisions of one or a small set of people could alter the lives of millions. Decision making sciences is now part of the core curriculum in most Public Policy schools and students have to grapple with behavioral economics, neurosciences, risk management and game theory to get themselves prepared for decision-making roles that they may play later in their life. This question also gave me an opportunity to share how I have been taking decisions most of my professional life. While I must confess that my circle of influence and the impact of my decision-making is limited to SVYM, its projects and the many stakeholders that we work with, I thought that I should share some of my views on this subject.

I have always tried to pass the decisions I take through a few filters that I have created for myself in my mind. I first try to look at what I could call the Utilitarian filter. How much utility will my decision have in the real world in which I operate? How many people would benefit or be affected adversely by the decision? I would also keep the dictum of Mahatma Gandhi in mind. He would ask himself ‘would anyone person anywhere benefit by this decision?’ If the answer was yes, he would go ahead with it. I would look at the larger good that the decision would bring about while keeping in mind any negative consequences.

Looking at a decision from a mere Utilitarian sense would not suffice. One also needs to make sure that the decision is not unduly in favor of one or a few. We need to keep in mind that decisions in the public domain needs to be Egalitarian too. Are all people affected by the decision seen as equal? One can understand that stake-holding may not be equal and people may be affected in many different ways, but I have found it useful to consider whether I consider everyone equal and operate from that domain or am I biased. Biases are very subtle and come in different shapes and sizes. Being mindful is the only way of managing these biases and I am also aware of the fact that not all biases may be negative. But being aware of them when taking decisions has helped me focus on the larger picture. I also know that there will always be different factions with their own agendas and looking for decisions to be taken in their favor. One needs to be political in one’s thinking when managing these factions and one’s sense of egalitarianism could be challenged under such circumstances.

What I would consider the most important and the least negotiable for me would the Ethicality of my decision-making. One needs to constantly question oneself whether the decision that one has taken is ethical. Would it pass the test of satya (truth)? Is the decision not only ethical under the conditions that one operates in, but would it also be moral? Many decisions that we take could be completely legal, but then passing the test of ethicality and morality is more important. In a world where one is forced to compromise and accommodate so many differing views, having a non-negotiable filter of Ethicality has always helped me stay focused with my integrity intact.

I have also realized that taking decisions from the plane of Utilitarianism, Egalitarianism and Ethicality can severely affect the process. Many a time I have found this challenging and too very idealistic too and impractical to implement. I now also ask myself “Is the decision that I am taking pragmatic and doable?”. Otherwise it is as good as not taking any decision at all. One needs to carefully balance ones idealism with the pragmatism that the situation may warrant. Despite wanting to be practical, I bear in mind the non-negotiability of my own sense of morality, ethics and the values that drive me. Being pragmatic also helps me understand the context better and keeps my decision culturally appropriate too.

While what I have mentioned here is only a loose framework that I constantly apply, one must understand that there are many complex situations that demand operating from differing and multiple paradigms simultaneously. Frameworks are only tools that one can use to stay grounded and should not become hard and fast rules that we need to subscribe constantly. For when one does that, the same framework that was designed to aid us will become a limitation to our thinking and creativity. We also need to understand that the problems we face could be both technical and adaptive. Many technical problems will have standard responses and that is where I have found learning from others’ experiences very valuable. It is the adaptive problems that many of us face in the development and public policy space that makes decision-making that much more exciting and challenging. Experience also tells me that this way of thinking has worked for me most of the time. It has also given me a structural and functional framework from which to operate. It not only has enhanced the quality of my decision-making processes, but has also made them reasonable and relatively consistent.

The domain of development is riddled with variances and uncertainties, and makes one take decisions with very little data on hand. This is what makes the process challenging and intellectually and emotionally demanding. Having a set of filters to run one’s decisions through indeed gives one a sense of psychological comfort and the confidence to operate under such circumstances. Many of the decisions I have taken may not have passed through all these filters, but having them keeps me aware of what I am doing and what the gaps are. Like I mentioned earlier, what I make sure every time is ensure that they do not cross the standards of ethics that I have set for myself and this has helped me stay comfortable with the decision even if it was seen to be inappropriate at that moment in time.

- Balu

Categories: Musings
  1. October 22, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    Thanks for the meaningful blog, Balu. Your decisions have certainly proven the relevance of the thought process you practice and recommend.

  2. Kritee Gujral
    October 22, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    Hi Dr. Balu, I found this to be a great post. It is often helpful to look at frameworks that are being taught at say universities like Cornell for decision making, but it is so crucial to look at what people/leaders (like you) in the field are actually applying. It is nice to know which approaches you have narrowed down through your years of experience to be the most successful approaches for the context in which you work. Thank you for always reflecting on experience and for sharing it with us.

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