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My 11 steps to making better decisions

What does making a documentary in India have to do with farm management decision-making? As it turns out, a lot

Are the decisions you make based on solid information and knowledge, or are they based on bias and emotions? This is a critical question everyone needs to ask because the basis on which decisions are made ultimately determines the quality of the decisions.

In the run up to New Year’s, I realized that 2019 marks 25 years since I was actually forced to face this question, and I remembered just how much of a life-changing experience it was.

To make a long story short, I was asked my opinion of Canadian foreign aid. Like many Canadians in the ’90s, I gave a very negative response. I was convinced foreign aid was a waste of money and that those dollars could be better used at home. I had little knowledge of what projects and agencies Canadian foreign aid actually funded, or how aid was used, but I was so biased by common public perception that I had no trouble expressing that view.

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However, the organization asking my opinion turned out to be a Toronto documentary production company, and they challenged me to actually confront my biases by travelling with them, along with three other Canadians who had expressed similar scepticism, to examine, question, and critique Canadian-funded aid programs in India.

We would be free to ask any questions we wanted, have complete access to books and records of agencies and projects visited, and could in fact expand the scope of the project as opportunities arose.

For example, while examining small irrigation projects, it just happened that a very senior Indian governmental official was visiting a nearby village and I asked the film crew about the possibility of questioning him about India irrigation policy. Their response was to simply crash the minister’s meeting.

The three weeks I spent on farms in Gujarat state and in poor areas and slums of Mumbai did much more than just showcase aid projects. They opened my eyes to the world and made me a critical thinker. They taught me to look beyond the rhetoric, the dog whistles, and the easy answers.

So what does making a documentary in India have to do with farm management decision-making? As it turns out, a lot!

The following are decision-making lessons I learned from that trip that I use today.

Lesson 1: Facts vs. opinion

Before accepting anything as fact, I ask myself: who is delivering the message? What is their background? Why are they presenting that message? Who else supports the information? Has it been peer reviewed?

Beware of any “information” which is not credited to an individual or organization.

Don’t form an opinion or make a decision strictly on the basis of a headline. The headline is meant to attract attention, not deliver the message. Read the article and not just the headline.

Most importantly, question social media postings and memes. Most are made to elicit an emotional response rather than to present facts.

Finally, we now live in an age where “alternative facts” are accepted. There is no such thing as an alternative fact. Watch out!

Lesson 2: Don’t seek confirmation bias

Everyone dislikes being proven wrong. As a result, we seek information that confirms our existing point of view and downplay or completely disregard information in conflict with it, no matter how credible.

Everyone has biases. They are developed from family, community and experiences. The problem is, if you are not aware of your bias, it opens you to misinformation.

Remember, too, that sharing misinformation jeopardizes your credibility.

Lesson 3: Be able to argue the other side

This is taking lesson two to the next level. Look at a problem or issue from all sides. Ideally, learn enough to be able to argue from a position opposite of your own. At minimum, determine what the best arguments against your position likely are. If you learn the best argument that a person disagreeing with you is likely to make, you will be in a much better position to understand if they have a point.

As well, you will be in a much better position to make a decision if you have looked at a concern from all sides.

Lesson 4: Listen first

And I don’t mean listen to your own voice or mind!

Most people think their answer is the best answer, which it may be. But the only way to know is to listen to other points of view. And listening is not just listening for a statement you can refute, and then planning your argument or objection. Listen to their complete argument and pay attention for the points you agree with as well as what they are saying which you may be willing to compromise on.

Lesson 5: Look for a solution, not someone to blame

Those of you with management experience in a large company or organization will recognize that too often strategy discussions devolve into blame sessions. Family dynamics can lead to similar conflicts. Instead of proposing workable solutions, conversations drift to who is responsible for the problem and the blame game begins.

While it is important to know why you are in the situation you are in, the task of management is to plan forward. Blame simply makes determining the best decision more difficult.

Lesson 6: Be civil

Arguments are never one-sided. If they were, there would be no arguing. The best way to shut down decision-making is mounting an attack on those who disagree with you. Name calling does not lead to better decisions; it destroys partnerships and organizations.

Lesson 7: Ask questions

If you do not understand something in the decision-making process, ask questions. Even if you think you know what someone is saying, ask questions to make sure A decision based on misunderstanding is rarely the best.

Lesson 8: Look for discourse, not compromise

Instead of focusing on a single solution at the beginning of the decision-making process, look at competing needs of the organization and for potential roadblocks to making a decision.

Encourage all parties to introduce their own solutions and proposals.

Chances are, if you let all parties present potential solutions, compromise will begin to happen on its own. Everyone will feel part of the final decision and do their best to make it work.

Lesson 9: Review

If there are a number of people involved in the decision-making, the major points, both pro and con, should be reviewed before reaching the final decision to make sure everyone is clear of the proposal that is being discussed and debated.

The above nine lessons are relatively straightforward. However, my trip to India and travels since have prompted me to add two additional lessons that improve decision-making in the global economy.

Lesson 10: Broaden your horizons

When you think of a holiday, are you like many Canadians and picture a sunny, warm, all-inclusive beach resort, with fencing or security to allow you to enjoy semi-secluded tranquility? The only interaction with the local population is likely limited to the resort staff.

There is a huge world out there, full of different sights, sounds, and cultures for those willing to broaden their horizons.

Visiting lands outside North America likely means longer flights, something that is costly and never comfortable. But surprisingly, the extra investment in travel may be offset by lower land costs at your destination. We spent two weeks in China, including air travel, a river cruise, and land tours, for less than it would have cost us for a week at a quality Caribbean all-inclusive.

To view their postage-stamp-size farms on mountain sides and to find that Chinese farmers, without the mechanization we have, far out produce us is mind-boggling. I had a long discussion with one tour guide comparing the economies and safety nets of China and Canada, and her final comment was, “Canada is a more socialist country than China.” (And that was before our current federal and provincial governments.)

Poor decisions are made when we do not understand the consumers and markets. And unless we understand our competitors, how can we compete effectively?

Lesson 11: Step outside your comfort zone

It is easy to categorize people on the basis of race, education, religion, politics, wealth, etc. But when you actually get a chance to talk to different people across the spectrum, it is truly amazing how similar everyone is. We worry about the same things: health, family, food, housing, the basic needs.

I will never forget walking alone down a street in Ho Chi Minh City when a Vietnamese man sitting on the sidewalk noticed my Canada flag pin I wear while travelling. He asked in halting English if I would sit and talk with him for a few minutes. As it turned out, he had a sister who had recently been hired as a foreign worker in Vancouver and he had heard how prejudiced Canadians were about Vietnamese. Would she be safe? he asked. Talk about an eye-opening exposure to bias!

I am not sure how many readers would have accepted his invitation to sit on the sidewalk and talk, but what an incredible way to learn about a different culture.

There has never been a greater time to learn, share, and experience provided you are willing to step outside the walls we build around our lives.

I understand that travel to the developing world isn’t for everyone but if you want a quick taste without the hardships and risks, consider a cruise that has ports of call there. You will be amazed what you can learn.

Important decisions are never comfortable. Our world view should not be either. We need to make decisions based on the real world and not simply on the patch of land we call our home, farms, businesses and even our country.

All decisions are ultimately emotional. Our final decision is what makes us feel best based on the information we have gathered and evaluated before making the decision. But Mark Twain said it best: “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

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