Can Someone Hand Me The Directions? A Soliloquy About Choosing Among Divergent Roads

When was the last time you had to consider your professional alternatives?  A few months ago?  A year ago?  A few years ago?  For me, it was yesterday.

I’ve known for some time that I would need to sit down and really think about my alternatives and what I want to do.  It’s been on my mind ever since I finished school, but I’ve kept myself busy since then and sitting down to analyze my situation just never seemed to make it onto my to-do list…until yesterday.

A Personal Decision Analysis about Professional Opportunities

As you’ve probably already gleaned from some of my earlier posts, I enjoy thinking about, discussing, and using decision analysis techniques, so when I sat down to model my situation I already had an idea of the information I would need – I would need to know my alternatives, the criteria I would use to evaluate the alternatives, how I would weight the evaluation criteria, and how I would score each alternative on each of the criteria.  With this information, I would be able to make a reasonable decision that’s consistent with my values and preferences.  Let me briefly describe how I formulated and analyzed my decision situation.

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What Are My Alternatives?

First, I thought about my alternatives.  I’ve been thinking about them and discussing them with family and friends for a while, so they’re fairly well developed.  In my mind, I have three alternatives.  I can: 1) Work with my wife’s father, 2) Work for myself, or 3) Continue doing what I’m doing and apply for jobs until I’m hired.  I’m sure there are additional alternatives, like a combination of these alternatives or ones I haven’t even thought of, but to keep this decision analysis simple let’s assume these are my alternatives.

What Are My Criteria?

Next, I thought about the criteria I wanted to use to evaluate my alternatives.  After some thinking, I decided on five criteria: 1) Doing what I love, 2) Staying involved with policy advisory committees, 3) Money, 4) Family dynamics, and 5) Maintaining and developing new skills.  Once again, I’m sure there are additional criteria, but these are the ones that are important to me and that can help me distinguish among my alternatives.

In order to use the decision analysis technique, I had to weight the criteria based on their relative importance to me.  Two important requirements in this step are: 1) the five weights must sum to one, like probabilities, and 2) the difference between any two weights should represent my preference for one relative to the other.  This means that if I care about the criterion ‘Doing what I love’ twice as much as the criterion ‘Money’, then the weight for the former should be twice the weight for the latter.  Weights of 0.30 for ‘Doing what I love’ and 0.15 for ‘Money’ would meet this requirement because 0.30 is twice 0.15.  Let’s say the weights I settled on, at least initially, were 0.25, 0.10, 0.25, 0.25, and 0.15, respectively.  These weights would meet both requirements because they sum to one and the differences among them represent my relative preferences for the criteria.

How Do I Score My Alternatives?

With my alternatives, evaluation criteria, and criteria weights written down (i.e. recorded in a spreadsheet), the next step was to score each of my alternatives on each of the criteria.  Since there were only three alternatives, I decided to assess the three alternatives one criterion (i.e. column) at a time rather than assessing the first alternative on all five criteria (i.e. row) before moving on to the second and third alternatives.  By using this method to record the scores, I was able to make comparisons among the scores for the three alternatives to ensure that, for each criterion, the differences among the scores reflected how I would rate one alternative compared to the other two.

Initially, the scores cannot be combined because the units for each criterion are different (e.g. dollars for ‘Money’ and “happiness” for ‘Doing what I love’), so they need to be rescaled.  One common way to score alternatives in commensurable units is to use a subjective value between 0 and 100.  0 represents the worst plausible outcome for the given criterion, and 100 represents the best.  The score I give each alternative represents my belief about how well the alternative will satisfy me on that criterion.  For example, if I believe I’m likely (loosely defined) to earn the same amount of money whether I work with my wife’s father or work for myself (within a given time horizon), then I would give each alternative an equivalent score on that criterion, let’s say 55 and 55.  And if I think I would make a slightly greater amount of money once I get a job (if I continue looking for one), then I would give that alternative a slightly higher score, let’s say 65.  Unlike the weights on the evaluation criteria, these scores do not need to sum to a specific value.

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How Do Use All Of This Information?

With the weights and scores in place, I was ready to combine all of the information (including my values, preferences, assumptions, and subjective judgments) in a formal, structured way to see which alternative is “best”.  For this decision analysis technique, the decision rule is that I should choose the alternative with the highest overall score.  To determine which alternative had the highest overall score, I took a weighted average of the scores and criteria weights for each alternative.

Don’t Forget About Sensitivity Analyses…

Of course, just like for any other analysis, you would want to perform sensitivity analyses (i.e. make incremental changes to the scores and weights) to see how sensitive the result is to changes to the scores and weights.  If you change the scores or weights significantly and the result does not change (i.e. the initially superior alternative remains superior), then you can be more confident in the result.  If, on the other hand, the result is sensitive to changes to the inputs, then you need to try multiple relevant combinations and think hard about your values and preferences.

As you can see, conducting a formal decision analysis to help you make an important decision can be highly personal.  It requires you to think hard about your values and preferences (i.e. what you care about and how badly you care about it).  At the same time, the technique is flexible, so you can (as I did) ask family and friends to supply scores and weights (from their perspectives and “yours”) to see which alternative is favored.  In the end, the result of the model can just be another piece of information (albeit a valuable, defensible piece of information) to consider before making your decision.  The result of a decision analysis isn’t meant to strip you of your decision making authority.  It’s simply meant to structure your thinking, clarify your preferences, and aid and inform your decision making process.

Tell Me, What Is the Answer?

So, what was the result of my decision analysis?  Which career path have I chosen?  Like an annoying season finale on television, the answer to those questions is…to be continued.  Let’s just say the results were surprising and informative, and I highly recommend you try this or a similar technique the next time you face a difficult or complex decision situation.

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2 thoughts on “Can Someone Hand Me The Directions? A Soliloquy About Choosing Among Divergent Roads

  1. Excellent way to make objective decisions and leave the emotions out, as much as possible. Thanks for sharing.
    Curious about the outcome!

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