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Difficult Decisions


Explanations > Decisions > Difficult Decisions

Decision risks | Most difficult decisions | Making the decision | So what


Some decisions are easy while others are far more difficult. What makes decisions harder? If there is one factor that sharpens the mind, it is the risk of failure.

Decision risks

Decision risk has three main elements: investment, impact and likelihood.


Investment is the cost of deciding and includes the money, time and emotion required to make the decision work, and which would be lost if the decision fails to achieve the goals which provide the return on the investment. Further, risk assessment includes the cost of recovery should things go wrong (and which can far outstrip the initial investment).


Impact considers effect of both benefits and of failure. Impact can be measured in depths, spread and duration. Depth is the size of the benefit or harm done. Breadth takes into account the number of other people effected and the general spread of the benefit or harm. Duration takes into account the time that the impact continues for, including before recovery or its natural unsuppressed duration.


Likelihood is the probability of the impact occurring. This may be well known or, more likely, may only be estimated. Likelihood of impact may be dependent on a number of factors and other risks which themselves have their own likelihood.

Likelihood can also change as events occur that modify probability. Likelihood can also decrease as time goes by, although this can be balance by an increasing impact.


The decision also takes account of reversibility. Once made, can you go back on the investment? What investments will be lost and what exactly could be recovered? Easier decisions have low-cost exit options. In harder decisions, all costs are irreversible sunk immediately after the decision is made.

Similar to reversibility is recoverability. If risks occur, can the situation be recovered or must the harm be allowed to take its course? A recoverable risk is one where contingency action may be planned to minimize the impact, should the risk occur.

Most difficult decisions

The worst type of decision is that where there is:

  • Significant and unrecoverable personal investment, including money, time and emotion.
  • High value outcomes but with low chance of success.
  • Situations where failure is very costly (even if the chance of failure is low).
  • Lack of solid information on which to base the decision, including likelihood of success and investment needed.

Making the decision

Making irreversible personal decisions is very hard. For example whether to undergo medical operations such as amputation or whether to resign and forge a new career. Likewise at work, big decisions can make or break careers, leading to great promotions or being dismissed.

Emotionally, we often base decisions on anticipated regret. We project forward to a vision of the decision failing and experience how bad we would feel. This is why making hard decisions can require courage. When we focus on possible failure, however, we see just as biased view as when we focus hopefully on anticipated success. The best approach is to seek a balanced view where both are coolly considered.

Beware of intuition in difficult decisions. Find ways to check it out, for example looking for the root of assumptions or by asking others for an independent view. When doing this, it is often best to ask those who are not invested and who will neither benefit nor lose from the decision.

So what?

Understand when a decision is difficult by considering the investment, impact and likelihood of success and failure. Make decisions with this knowledge, not hope. If needed, take time to think.

See also

Two-stage decision


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