Friday, September 25, 2009

Ben Franklin on making decisions

Breaking Bad just won an Emmy.

Basically, it's about a high school teacher who makes odd decisions.

Most significantly he decides to start making crystal methamphetamine to make lots of money before he dies of cancer. Not a spoiler. You learn this real quick if you get started with the show.

In the first season, he's also up against a decision to kill a man.

He uses a list of pros and cons to decide.

I'm not going to share anymore of the story since that's best left up to watching this terrific show :)

But I was curious where the pros and cons method came from.

I think I may have learned it originally from my mother or maybe in grade school.

Regardless if you do a tiny bit of research, Ben Franklin comes up a lot in discussions of this method.

It's just that his method is a little more systematic than how we usually go about it. And maybe more useful.

The method he uses is mentioned in a letter you can find all over the internet to a Joseph Priestly. Here's the text of the letter I found here.

To Joseph Priestley
London, September 19, 1772

Dear Sir,
In the Affair of so much Importance to you, wherein you ask my Advice, I cannot for want of sufficient Premises, advise you what to determine, but if you please I will tell you how.

When these difficult Cases occur, they are difficult chiefly because while we have them under Consideration all the Reasons pro and con are not present to the Mind at the same time; but sometimes one Set present themselves, and at other times another, the first being out of Sight. Hence the various Purposes or Inclinations that alternately prevail, and the Uncertainty that perplexes us.

To get over this, my Way is, to divide half a Sheet of Paper by a Line into two Columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then during three or four Days Consideration I put down under the different Heads short Hints of the different Motives that at different Times occur to me for or against the Measure. When I have thus got them all together in one View, I endeavour to estimate their respective Weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: If I find a Reason pro equal to some two Reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two Reasons con equal to some three Reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the Ballance lies; and if after a Day or two of farther Consideration nothing new that is of Importance occurs on either side, I come to a Determination accordingly.

And tho' the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to take a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra.

Wishing sincerely that you may determine for the best, I am ever, my dear Friend,
Yours most affectionately
B. Franklin

Source: Mr. Franklin: A Selection from His Personal Letters. Contributors: Whitfield J. Bell Jr., editor, Franklin, author, Leonard W. Labaree, editor. Publisher: Yale University Press: New Haven, CT 1956.

So his method of pros and cons brings up points that are a bit different then we typically might use:

1) Spend a few days on creating the list. Don't try and bang it out in one sitting. Sleep on it. This might be the best of both worlds for people who've seen the new research that sleeping on a problem to let it work out unconsciously might not work.

So this is a mix here of conscious analysis AND sleeping on it.

2) It's not just about which side has more pros and cons. Each gets a weight to consider.

One additional thing I've seen introduced to Ben's methodical pros and cons that he doesn't touch on in the letter is how to determine weight.

Typical of most businesses risk or issue logs, you would determine weight by multiplying an issue's probability of happening and its impact.

If you have 2 issues (A and B), sure A might be of more serious impact than the other, but if it's of a very slight probability of occurring, issue B might be of more importance in prioritizing (i.e., might have a higher weight)

In fact, here's a blank sheet using this approach.

From a guy named Fred Nikols at Distance Consulting.

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