Tough Choices

Have you ever been confronted by a design choice and don’t know what to do? As Engineers, we want to make the right choice – the best choice. A best choice involves many considerations: the most efficient, cost-effective, usable, reliable, maintainable…. I’m sure you can add many more aspects of the simple term “best” to be considered.

We have many tools at our disposal to help make the right decision. We can make lists of pros and cons. We can estimate costs. We can analyze the implications of the choices. We can interview stakeholders or peers to get different perspectives. But sometimes choices are just tough, right?

One time I was confronted by such a choice. I was designing a network protocol and was reviewing two different ideas I had to manage a distributed directory of network resources. I had applied many of the above tools, and still couldn’t decide. I went to visit a mentor of mine and explained my dilemma. She listened patiently, and then simply said “You have done your homework. I trust your decision.”

“But…..” I stammered. “I don’t trust my decision! I want to do the right thing! You have more experience. Tell me what I should do!”

She reached into her desk and pulled out a quarter. “Heads – choice A. Tails – choice B.” She tossed the coin. I was aghast as she trivialized my important question. But while the coin was still in the air I blurted out “I hope it’s heads!”

She smiled at me with that wise “mentor look” and put the coin back in her desk without looking at it. I left her office with confidence I had made the right decision, and pleased that the decision had finally been made.

What happened here? What did I learn about making decisions?

Yes, I could have studied the problem more. But I had studied if enough. I had a sense of what the answer should be, but I wasn’t willing to trust my instinct. I knew the facts, but what if my instinct was wrong? The real wrong choice was continuing to agonize over the decision.

I’ve heard a quote attributed to Fred Brooks, but I can’t find a reference for it. It goes something like:

There are no tough decisions. Some decisions are easy because the best choice is obvious. If the best choice is not obvious, it’s because either choice could work. So don’t spend time choosing. Pick one and spend your time making it work.

Of course this assumes that the homework has been done. We have to study a problem to have enough insight and understanding to make a wise decision. But in studying it, it’s easy to get caught up in the decision process and lose sight that the goal is to make a decision. We can’t jump straight to the decision, but we have to remember that there is a cost to not deciding too. There comes a time when the coin is our friend.