(In)Decision Making

Are you more likely to book your next vacation through LastMinute.com or through PlanWayAhead.com?  Do you make snap decisions or like to keep your options open?  Are you usually the first to meetings or the last? Do you like to arrive at the airport with seconds to spare or would this send your stress sky high?  Is your desk clean or chaotic?  Are deadlines your friend or foe? Do you like to focus on a task to completion or have many balls in the air?  Do you always finish what you start?  Are you a procrastinator?


Read the Procrastinator's Creed

These behaviors are tied together on psychological scales.  Awareness of your natural behavior has its benefits, not least that it gives you greater opportunity to consciously adjust your behavior according to circumstance.

Recognizing and understanding the decision-making style of colleagues has its benefits too. It can reduce tension and misunderstandings between people with different styles.  It can help like-minded individuals to avoid group-think. It allows diverse teams to play to the strengths of individuals.

“Action Orientation”

If you are familiar with the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), then you’ll probably know whether you’re a Type J (Judgement) or a Type P (Perception).  Some people are strongly typed exhibiting either consistent Type J or Type P behavior. Most people, however, exhibit a some of both and are categorized according to their prevailing tendency.

If you are not familiar with MBTI then that last paragraph was gibberish! Here’s a quick summary.  The J/P scale is the fourth of the MBTI and deals with a person’s preference for how they deal with the outside world, make decisions, take actions and manage their life — sometimes called an “Action Orientation”.

  • The Type J prefers to approach the outside world WITH A PLAN and is oriented towards organizing one’s surroundings, being prepared, making decisions and reaching closure and completion.
  • The Type P takes the outside world AS IT COMES and is adopting and adapting, flexible, open-ended and receptive to new opportunities and changing game plans.  (See for, example, the Myers Briggs Basics and the Personality Pathways explanation.)

Action Orientation in Action

My natural preference is towards keeping my options open, delaying decisions and maintaining flexibility.  Here are examples where this tendency has played out.

Story 1 – Technical Indecision. When working for a tech business in Boston I headed up to Toronto with the COO for meetings with a technical supplier.  I opened the meeting thus… “How are we going to tackle problem X?”  In my role as representative Geek I laid out a number of ways we could approach the problem.  The geeks across the table got excited in anticipation of a stimulating exploration of ideas.  It seems that, like me, they were Type P and were also Abstract Oriented Programmers (that’s the perfect combination for everlasting technical discussion).  The COO immediately demanded that we skip the entire discussion and make an immediate decision.  Most executives are Type J or they learn to behave that way at work by necessity.

Fortunately, that Boston employer required everyone to participate in Myers Briggs training and since mine was just weeks before this trip it was clear that the different approaches of the executive and myself were Type J vs. Type P.  Given the executive push, the meeting moved quickly to consensus and agreement on a solution.  In this case I don’t think we would have made a better decision if we’d talked through the options in detail.  And what was the result?  The software delivered by the supplier was crap but that was not because of the decision process (I still hear complaints about it 10 years later!)

I hear Toronto is a great city, however, all I recall from my 6 hours there is this meeting and the airport.  The lesson of the meeting was twofold.  First, a conscious understanding of the different approaches to decision making avoided a distracting disagreement over process. Second, being aware of my own tendency improved my decision making ability — not so much how I evaluate options but knowing when to decide (or defer), who to involve (or exclude), what process to adopt, and so on.

Story 2 – The Project Manager. Planning is one of the core project management functions. Naturally the role attracts people who tends towards planning details in advance. The people in teams they operate with don’t always act the same way … that’s people like me. But this story is not about me it’s about the stress of project planning that I’ve seen a hundred times.  It goes something like this…

The PM sits down with programmers to find out what needs to be done on a project, how long it will take, what order it will be done in and so on.  The programmer answers each question with “It depends” or a similarly evasive response.  I’ve written about the difficulties of software estimation previously (see Software Effort Mis-Under-Estimations part 1 and part 2) and I’m sympathetic to intrinsic difficulties and the psychological biases.

For some, there’s another factor: the desire to avoid being planned.  The strong Type P doesn’t like to lose flexibility and freedom and may fight a subversive war against imposed plans.  (In fairness, I have sometimes seen Type P’s appreciate the planner bringing a bit of order to their chaos.)

For my part, the lesson I have learned is that for any project of moderate complexity it’s better to have a plan and change it than to have no plan at all.  The key is in the tactical choices: the extent of detail in the plan, the amount of flexibility built in, how tightly to enforce the plan and to know when to change the plan.

Big 5 Conscientiousness

Programmers are more likely to know the Big5 Traditional Chinese character set than the Big 5 Personality Traits… but frankly neither is much likely.

Big 5’s Conscientiousness trait is relevant to today’s post.  Wikipedia’s description of the trait:

Conscientiousness is a tendency  to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement against measures or outside expectations. The trait shows a preference for planned rather than spontaneous behavior. It influences the way in which we control, regulate, and direct our impulses.

Big 5 tests provide an individual score on each of the five traits (e.g. this test) and the score is typically a percentage or low-to-high ranking.  A person with a “high conscientiousness” score would say they are always prepared, get things done right away, work to a plan, are tidy.  A person with a “low conscientiousness” score would tend to leave things messy, appreciates spontaneity, be motivated by deadlines.

[Aside: the term “low conscientiousness” sounds like a pejorative.  I don’t believe that is intended as the Big 5 scale is about describing a person’s behavior and not judging it morally.]

You’ve probably noticed that the J/P scale of Myers Briggs and the Big 5 conscientiousness scale are somewhat similar.  (For the statistically inclined the correlation is 0.5.)  Type J corresponds to higher conscientiousness and Type P to lower conscientiousness.


Here are some of the typical behavioral distinctions between the two types. (Note: this is not a personality test.)

Type J / Higher Conscientiousness Type P / Lower Conscientiousness
P5 = Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. I comfortable moving into action without a plan; plan on-the-go.
I like order. Chaos is stressful. I tend to be messy. I can work well in a chaotic environment.
Focus on task-related action; complete meaningful segments before moving on. I like to multitask, enjoy variety, and mix work with play.
I prefer to stay ahead of deadlines. I get chores done straight away. I work best close to the deadlines.
I prefer to decide and act. I keep my options open.
I make decisions with the information available. I make a decisions only once all the necessary information is available.
I use goals, dates and routines to manage life. I avoid commitments which interfere with my flexibility, freedom and variety.
I plan my weekend activities and vacations in advance. I enjoy spontaneity and the unexpected.
Structured. Impulse control. Unstructured. Impulsive.
Favors process and paperwork. Avoids process and paperwork.

Decision Processes

There are many schools of thought on decision making.  For simplicity let’s say there are processes that lead into a decision such as problem analysis.  Then there is the decision which itself may be quick or involve many sub-processes.  Then there are the post-decision processes that enact the decision.

As a generalization, the Type P is more likely to be emotionally invested in the pre-decision processes whereas the Type J favors the post-decision processes.  Put simply Type P is a better Starter; Type J is a better Finisher.

There are roles and environments that suit the different strengths.  Operational environments tend to favor planning and organization.  Creative endeavours and research environments often benefit from openness and flexibility.  Large businesses, with their inherent need for process and coordination, tend to favor planning.  Start-ups demand both skills in extremis: the ability to deal with lack of structure and even chaos; but with a necessity to prioritize, to make decisions quickly and enact those decisions effectively.

The reality is that we are best if know our natural strengths but can adapt according to the needs of circumstance. A procrastinator can learn to make fast decisions but needs discipline to resist their natural indecision. A highly conscientious person can put aside their desire to plan to support creativeness. If you’ve got a hundred unfinished projects then perhaps you should finish one before starting another ten. If you never plan for your vacation but your partner plans every hour then perhaps meet in the middle.

It can be stressful to find yourself in a situation that demands you act counter to your natural tendency.  I have found that a conscious awareness helps to reduce that stress.

Working with people with very different decision tendencies can create tension.  Again I have found that a conscious understanding helps to reduce that tension and work better with others.


5 Comments on “(In)Decision Making”

  1. Paul Regis says:

    Discovering one’s natural tendency and working with it is always in everyone’s interest. An example I read in “Strengthsfinder 2.0” is that it is possible to train as a football player. Perhaps, after many years of practice, I will be world class.
    But that same quantity of effort could yield better results in a different discipline, say learning to cook. If I focus on my strength then I, and arguably society, are mutually better off than trying to teach someone to be good at something they aren’t suited to.
    That is a little simplistic, as we don’t usually work in isolation (a football player is part of a team) and it assumes that the team has time to accomodate my lack of football skills and is able to progress despite the tactical disadvantage of carrying an undeveloped player.
    So, to apply all this, perhaps we could see different ways of adapting your strengths to handle other peoples’ work styles, strengths and weaknesses so that you avoid stress and can perform better. That also sounds like the job of a manager, though not many managers (that I have observed) seem to realise that.

    • psygrammer says:

      I haven’t heard of Strengthsfinder (http://www.strengthsfinder.com/). Do you recommend it?

      Is the point that being great at football (or most other activities) is a strength? Or that it is the confluence of hard work atop many strengths? For example, great coordination, discipline, spatial awareness, suitable body type, competitiveness and many other attributes of top footballers. (Plus you have to enjoy it to put in all the effort)

  2. Geoff says:

    As someone who has never sat a Briggs test or similar, this article made me attempt to position myself on the P/J spectrum somewhere, and somewhere is a definite P. I have built a reasonably successful business with little or no planning, and thrive on it. But in doing so, have tested the patience of some of my colleagues who reside closer to J.

    The most J of those colleagues happens to be my girlfriend of 15 years. We have worked together on and off for 17 years, and just quietly, I enjoy her attempts to get me to commit to some kind of time-line or plan. While she doesn’t usually succeed on paper, it does help to keep me on my toes with releases of software, website and products. It also provides an “odd couple” comedy for our staff: her office is pristine and ordered, whereas mine is complete chaos with 2 desks and not a spare inch on either, and “projects” on the floor in every corner.

    We’re just about to hit 50 staff and we’re so short on office space that for the 1st time in 5 years, we are going to share the same room again. The most important thing has been to acknowledge the differences, and have a good laugh at them, and then get on with finding the middle ground.

    I’m looking forward to sharing an office again 🙂

    • psygrammer says:

      You sound like the Odd Couple;) (For those not old enough to remember it is a classic sitcom / movie / play). The central characters were Oscar the messy slob (type P) and Felix the neat-freak (type J). The contrast was a comedy goldmine.

      A lot of Myers Briggs proponents will point out the challenge of a strong type P running a business. It’s great to read that with the right balance of staff, some self-awareness / discipline and good humour that you’ve succeeded!!!

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