Many paths to decisiveness

27th January 2006 at 00:00
Am I indecisive? Well, I don't know really. You see sometimes I am, and sometimes I'm not...

OK, then, I am.

Seriously folks, decisiveness was never my strong point - a failing that didn't serve me well as a headteacher. Once, we were worried about the way some local residents kept their cars in the no-parking zone outside the school gate. I was slow to tackle the problem - these were people we needed on our side. Then a colleague said - and I still hear him across the years - "Your reluctance to confront this is putting our children at risk." (He went on to be a fearsomely decisive head himself.) The only comfort for ditherers like me is that it is clearly a very common human weakness. The evidence lies in the amount of advice there is on the subject and in the systems that have been developed to deal with it.

There is, for example, the Pareto Analysis, named after the 19th-century Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. It is based on the oft-quoted 8020 rule - meaning in this case that you should stop ineffectually wringing your hands about the overwhelming mass of stuff that confronts you, and instead identify the 20 per cent that really matters. Tackle this now-manageable list and you will achieve 80 per cent of what you're after. ("Sorry you've broken your leg, my boy. But you don't seem to figure in my essential 20 per cent.") Then there is the Benjamin Franklin method, where you just sit and write down a balance sheet of pros and cons.

There are endless web pages on this subject. A sensible one comes from the US government: www.business.govphasesmanagingmake_decisionsdecision_maker.html. I like particularly a section on common decision-making mistakes, which warns against overestimating the value of advice from high-status groups and authority figures, while discounting the opinions of people we (perhaps unconsciously) judge less important - children, senior citizens, blue-collar workers. Then follows a sentence that some august people I can think of ought to have up on the wall. "If you find yourself discounting the information you receive from anyone, make sure you ask yourself why."

In the end, though, you may feel like Guy Browning who writes in his book Never Push When It Says Pull (Guardian Books): "In life there are no such things as decisions. Instead there are attempts to stand up and surf on the rolling tide of inevitability."

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