Questions to ask before making a group decision

An evolving list:

  • What exactly is the decision we need to make?
  • Who is responsible for making the final decision?
  • When must we decide?
  • Is this even important enough to act on now?
  • Do we have good enough options?
  • Do we have the right information about those options (e.g. their effects)?

Why voting doesn’t make anyone happy

The Exploratorium explains voting paradoxes, and why, no matter what happens tomorrow, no one will really be happy:

Or is it because society is too complex for us to even understand our choices?

“We’ve become fundamentally confused about what the decisions are, and what their consequences are. And we can’t make a connection between them,” he added. “And that’s true about everybody, as well as about the decision-makers, the policymaker. They don’t know what the effects will be of the decisions that they’re making.”

Kenneth Arrow even won the Nobel Prize for proving that when there are 3 or more choices, no system is guaranteed to choose an optimal winner.

Smaller decisions with smaller groups are more likely to work, but still fraught with peril. But go vote tomorrow, and may the odds be ever in your favor!

Absentee futures

We congratulate ourselves on the accomplishment of democracy…But regardless of who votes, what is the real meaning of any such choices if the alternatives among which we are selecting are underimagined, or clichéd – or simply absent? – Stuart Candy

My most influential role these days is less “tastemaker” and “decider” than simply “option generator”.

Design and decisions

Design is just decision-making with visual aids.

Obama on power

From the excellent “Obama Doctrine” profile in the New Yorker:

Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence. – Barack Obama


Obama has come to a number of dovetailing conclusions about the world, and about America’s role in it. The first is that the Middle East is no longer terribly important to American interests. The second is that even if the Middle East were surpassingly important, there would still be little an American president could do to make it a better place. The third is that the innate American desire to fix the sorts of problems that manifest themselves most drastically in the Middle East inevitably leads to warfare, to the deaths of U.S. soldiers, and to the eventual hemorrhaging of U.S. credibility and power. The fourth is that the world cannot afford to see the diminishment of U.S. power.

Perhaps the early Nobel award had an impact on his policy after all?

More on how the Paris climate agreement happened

The Guardian has a wonderful in-depth description of just how the world’s leaders came to an agreement on climate change action in Paris last December (previously). Lots of innovative techniques, including…

  • A headquarters with visibility across the conference:

Fabius, from his office, could be with Christiana Figueres, the UN climate change chief, for a face-to-face chat within seconds. His fellow minister, Ségolène Royal, was just along the corridor, flanked with the offices of ambassadors and high-ranking officials. Within the buzzing control room, screens relayed pictures of what was happening in each of the conference rooms scattered around the compound and 24 hour news from French and international channels.

About 60 French officials were there. In preparation for the all-night sessions that began almost immediately the conference started, a room with 20 cubicled beds was waiting for exhausted officials to refresh themselves with a few snatched moments of sleep.

  • Lots of unique meeting types, for each different type of expression and decision:

Procedurally, the French took great care. They instituted a series of talks known as “confessionals”. These were intended as confidential places where delegates could, in the words of one French official, “speak from the heart” to listening French diplomats, with no holds barred and an assurance of privacy.

There were also the absurdly named “informal informals”, in which a small group of delegates from various countries were charged with tackling a small piece of disputed text often as little as a paragraph at a time. Their task was to try to remove the infamous “square brackets” denoting areas of disagreement on the text and they met in small huddles around the conference centre, squatting on the floor in corridors or standing around a smart phone.

After these measures were still not producing enough progress, Fabius turned to “indabas” – by Zulu tradition, these are groups of elders convened to try to discuss disputes in communities. They were first tried out at the Durban climate talks in South Africa, in 2011, and under France’s plan they consisted of groups of up to 80 delegates at a time gathered to thrash out the remaining disagreements.

  • Small countries banded together to amplify their shared concerns:

While the French could draft in experienced diplomats on every side, some of the smallest countries had difficulty in keeping up with the meetings – many happened in parallel and they did not have the personnel to attend them all.

One way of getting around that was the formation of a “coalition of high ambition”, which was announced with three days to Friday’s deadline. Forged by small island states – a key figure was Tony de Brum of the Marshall Islands – and the EU, it was joined by many of the least developed countries, adding up to more than 100 nations. They could then negotiate together, with an agreed common interest. Before the end, this coalition had been joined by the US, Canada and Australia. It was hailed by Europe’s climate and energy commissioner Miguel Cañete as a key factor in the end agreement.

  • Finally, 1:1 talks between the final decisionmakers:

At this point, it was clear that further efforts were needed. There followed a rapid round of telephone diplomacy. Obama spoke personally to the Chinese leader. Hollande picked up the phone to as many of his counterparts across the world as he could manage.

Tricking yourself–for science!

Now that’s scientific rigor! A team studying gravitational waves is intentionally trying to fool itself:

Because gravitational waves are so tiny, and it’s easy to get false positives, the LIGO team includes three individuals capable of injecting false signals to test the group’s ability to weed them out.

Tribal techniques for global issues

I love this–traditional South African negotiating techniques were used to get a climate deal in Paris (and Durban in 2011):

An indaba is designed to allow every party to voice its opinion, but still arrive at a consensus quickly. It works because opinions and arguments can only be aired in a particular way:

Instead of repeating stated positions, each party is encouraged to speak personally and state their “red lines,” which are thresholds that they don’t want to cross. But while telling others their hard limits, they are also asked to provide solutions to find a common ground…

[In Durban in 2011] the South African presidency asked representatives from the main countries to form a standing circle and speak directly to each other.

A South African analyst explains the indaba process in more detail:

The draft text of the agreement is produced (by the chieftaincy, presidency, secretariat, etc. following extensive stakeholder engagement) and circulated. Those in support give automatic approval of the agreement and discussion ensues; those who agree during the discussion are incorporated in the agreement.

Those most affected or with immovable positions (simplified to key disagreement areas) discuss among themselves, arrive at a solution (this is a more facilitated session) and the solution is then incorporated into the wider agreement with changes acceptable to the whole collective – which is easier as everyone was part of the process and changes tend to be superficial, if any.

Interesting that some of its success comes from making the process more intimate and personal–while still keeping guidelines on the format. Hopefully the way we move decision-making forward includes learning from the history of different cultures like this.

Forecasting our memories

When the Long Now audience of 2515 looks back on the audience of 2015, their level of contempt for how we go about judging political debate will be roughly comparable to the level of contempt we have for the 1692 Salem witch trials. – Philip Tetlock

It will be interesting to see–and invent–the ways we do improve political debate.

Resumés and eulogies

David Brooks shares a nice, quick talk on the decisions to live for your resumé versus your eulogy:

The résumé virtues are the ones you put on your résumé, which are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that get mentioned in the eulogy, which are deeper: who are you, in your depth, what is the nature of your relationships, are you bold, loving, dependable, consistency? And most of us, including me, would say that the eulogy virtues are the more important of the virtues. But at least in my case, are they the ones that I think about the most? And the answer is no.

In another article, he writes about the 5 “ways to be deep”, and hits on a few that aren’t as celebrated as they might be:

2. Suffering

“When people look backward at the things that made them who they are, they usually don’t talk about moments when they were happy. They usually talk about moments of suffering or healing. So we plan for happiness, but we’re formed by suffering…”

4. Obedience

“If you look at the people who are deep, often they don’t look inside themselves. Something calls to them from outside themselves,” he said. They obey a cause.