Buffets give me loads of choice, provide instant gratification and save me time.  All good, surely.  The problem isn’t the buffet, it’s me.  When faced with an abundance of options I can’t help loading my plate up too high with a weird assortment of flavors and textures.  A selection no self-respecting chef would ever place on a plate at once: who would mix chicken korma, beef wellington and grilled salmon (apart from me in a buffet frenzy).

Economics theory tells us that more choice is a good thing.  Yet more and more evidence is being found that people struggle when faced with an abundance of options.  People are poor at making choices.  But that’s not my problem.  My problem is the opposite.  I’m too good at making choices.  I choose korma, wellington and salmon…so I end up eating a mush.

What’s true for my dining habits also applies to business.  I run strategy conferences around the world and I notice a pattern across all groups, something I believe represents a universal struggle.  It’s not that people were poor at choosing strategies; on the contrary, I see remarkable creativity and insight displayed in identifying ideas and approaches.  The problem isn’t choosing, it’s rejecting.

The more I look the more I see this pattern repeating itself.  I see it in colleagues overloaded with interests, never getting beyond dabbling in any of them.  I see it in friends, struggling to commit to a career, a location or a partner.  I see it in parents, unable to decide on the best school for their children.

Some Theory

Prospect Theory can give some clues.  Three elements are relevant to this specific question:

  • The brain categorises decisions as being about either gains or losses and then processes the two types of decisions totally differently: there are different neurotransmitters of choice for each.
  • Gains and losses are not treated as equals.  We have a deep aversion to loss.  In fact, our aversion to loss has been found to be twice as high as our attraction to gain.  This means that losing $10 is much more painful than the pleasure of gaining $10 or even $15.
  • Finally, when deciding on an option, the brain appears ill-suited to take into account the complete picture.  It will be able to judge the specific outcomes of that action but will not take into account the knock-on effects such as ‘if I do this I won’t be able to do that’.

Back to the Buffet Table

We live in wonderfully rich times with endless attractive options open to us.  In such an environment, the decision making process has two phases: short-listing the best options from the universe of possibilities; and making the final selection.  When we short-list we are in a ‘gain’ mindset: our minds imagine the gains arising from the various options.  As we do so we experience a small neurochemical taste of the expected reward from each option.  Those options which appear to promise the most, are added to our short-list.   All very positive.

Then comes the hard part: rejecting options we have just identified as being great.  Here we’re caught in a pincer movement between our aversion to loss and our inability to see the ‘bigger picture’.  So as I stand looking at all the options on the buffet table, I simply ask myself ‘Do I like Beef Wellington?’, not ‘Do I like a plate over-loaded with Wellington, korma and salmon, where the sauces all run together and…’  I am also very clear that I don’t want to miss out on anything.  So I overload my plate

Each choice we make has multiple impacts on our lives or our business.  Yet we are blind to these in the decision making process, all we see are the benefits and we feel the loss of these acutely.  So we choose too much.  Michael Porter tells us that making trade-offs (rejecting options) is central to developing an effective corporate strategy.  To truly differentiate your business, it’s not enough to come up with good plans and ideas, you have to deliberately choose not to follow up great ideas and plans.  The same is true in life.  In a curious mirror to Porter’s strategic language, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – author of flow and one of the foremost experts on happiness – describes differentiation as being one of the central processes in personal growth.  When we focus on a few areas rather than too many – in life, work or relationships – we lead a life of more depth, we achieve mastery and we become unique.

Without rejection we make too many choices.  This can lead to inertia: stuck like an engine spinning in neutral, unable to reject and therefore move forward.  Or, we spread ourselves too thin.  We pursue undifferentiated business strategies.  We lead pale and diffuse lives.

Life is the ultimate creative process.  I choose to think of it more like sculpting than painting: it’s less what you choose to put on your canvas and more what you cut away that defines you.

What will you cut away?

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