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Randomness in decision making

No matter how hard we narrow the gap between what we understand about the world and the reality of it (see OODA loop) we are always wrong in some way. We just don’t know how much. 

By thinking things through, working with diverse teams, and constantly looking for signals in our environments we should be better. However, we still suffer from biases with the most insidious of them being the fact that we can’t see our own biases (see the blindspot bias). How do we break out of this vicious bias cycle? We take the decision making of what we think about (which will naturally be limited based on Dominant Logic theory) and get random. 

I’ve found that through various uses of randomness in the discourse and decision making process we can start to break out of the limitations we impose on ourselves.

Using randomness in divergent and convergent discourse 

When doing divergent activities we can expand the number of ideas we consider through randomized prompts and priming. In an article about how to improve crazy eights (a technique for sketching) I found that adding a bit of randomization through the Oblique Strategies cards would increase the variance of the ideas we considered. The benefit of multiple people in this exercise meant that the number of ideas was widened even more.

The same is true for convergent activities like dot voting where we are trying to reduce the number of ideas. By applying different random constraints we can start to judge ideas by criteria we may have not considered before. For example, you how does this change your priority of items if you randomly impose these questions:

  • How would we solve this if we only had a month to build and deploy?
  • How would we solve this if we only had a weekend to deploy?
  • How would we solve this if we had no technical resources?
  • How would we solve this if we were bootstrapping with $10k?

Letting the universe decide when we can’t 

In particular, I’ve often used randomness when we aren’t able to make a key decision because it isn’t clear what is best. Rather than wait for more data to appear, in which time it might be too late to gain everything we could have, we can simply flip a coin and use that as the decision.

What is interesting about this approach is that it taps into the gut instinct of most people. When the coin is in the air you know deep down inside what you really want. 

You can take it a step further that it is rare to have a simple black and white decision. Most often there are multiple options you can consider. In those cases I’d ask someone to write down 4-6 options and roll the appropriate dice to see what we should try.

What is key about these cases is that it would ideally be a decision that you don’t know what is best and something that you can learn from.

Reframing through randomness

One interpretation of spiritual systems like the I Ching and Tarot readings is that they help people reframe their current interpretation of the world’s uncertainty. The fortunes that are being told are general enough that you can reinterpret them for product decisions fairly easily. 

In fact, I’ve used Tarot readings for products to help people think through the main questions they have about their product’s uncertainties. I’ll use a standard cross tarot spread with a Rider Waite deck. With this I’ll start with the center about “today”, bottom as a “question” to consider, left as “the past,” above as “a potential,” and right about “the future.” When drawing each card I ask questions of the person that wants to rethink their story. Symbols on the cards can help push the narrative in certain directions.

Any system that asks for reframing of the narrative can help reinterpret stories of what is going on. These reframings can help ask helpful questions about what else could be beyond what is happening today. 

Hazards of using randomness

I’ve often found that people can feel uncomfortable about using randomness in their decision making processes because it may seem flippant. If you use it you don’t always have to show it to people. You can always behind the scenes draw a card or roll a die in secret (virtual or real) to apply a bit of randomness.