# Let me count the ways

A cartoon I once saw had a manager asking his subordinate to list all the action-options available for some decision, then to list the pros and cons of each action-option and then to count them, pros and cons combined, and to choose the option with the highest combined total.  Thus, if one option A had 2 pros and 1 con, and another option B had 1 pro and 5 cons, the latter would be selected.   You might call this the Pointy-Haired Boss model of decision-making.
It is interesting to ask exactly why is this NOT a sensible way of deciding what to do in some situation.   Most of us would say that firstly, this method ignores the direction of the arguments for and against doing something – it flattens out the positive and negative nature of (respectively) the pros and the cons.   Even inserting positive and negative signs to the numbers of supporting arguments would be better:  Thus, option A would have +2 and -1, giving a net value of +1, while option B would have +1 and -5, giving a net value of -4; choosing option A over B on this basis would feel better, since we taking into account the direction of support or attack.
But even this additive approach ignores the strength of the support of each pro argument, and the strength of the attack of each con argument.    In other words, even the additive approach still flattens something – in this case, the importance of each pro or con.    We might then consider inserting some measure of value or importance to the arguments.  If they involve any uncertainty, then we might also add some measure of that in some form or other, whether quantitative (eg, probabilities) or qualitative (eg, linguistic labels).
But let us stay with the pointy-haired boss for a moment.   We have 3 arguments (2 pro, 1 con) under A, and 6 arguments (1 pro, 5 con) under B.   Why do we have more arguments for some options than for others?  It could be because we have thought about some options more than we have others, or because, through our own direct experience or observation of the experiences of others, we know more about the likely upsides and downsides of some options.   The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, for example, because we’ve not yet been over that side of the fence to see the mud there.   On our side, we can clearly see all the downsides as well as the ups.  Human decision biases may also lead us to emphasize the negative sides of more familiar situations, while emphasizing the positives of less familiar situations.
A model of decision-making I have proposed before – retroflexive decision-making – understands that real managers in real organizations making important decisions don’t generally have only the one pass at deciding the possible decision-options and articulating the pros and cons of each.  Rather, managers work iteratively and collectively, sharing their knowledge and experiences, drawing on wide sources, and usually seeking to build a consensus view.   In addition, they almost never work in a vacuum – rather, they work within a context of legacy policies and systems, with particular corporate strengths, experiences, skills, expertise, technologies, business partners, trading relationships, regulatory environments, and even personalities, and within overall intended future corporate directions.   All this context means that some decision-options will already be favoured and others disfavoured.   That much is human – and corporate – nature.   Consequently, decision-makers will naturally seek to strengthen the pros and the positive consequences of some options (including, but usually not only, the favoured ones), while weakening or mitigating their cons and negative consequences of those options.
None of this is wrong – in fact, it is good management.   Every decision-option in any even moderately complex domain will have both pros and cons.  Making work whichever option is selected will be a matter of finding ways to eliminate or mitigate the negative consequences, while at the same time seeking to strengthen the positive consequences.   Those options where we know more about the pros and cons are also likely to be the options where we have the greatest leverage from experience, knowledge, and expertise to accentuate the pros and to mitigate the cons.    To that extent, the Pointy-Haired Boss model is not necessarily as stupid as it may seem.