Widening Your Options – Part 1

Sep 24, 2014

The High Level Issue

In my post about Interests vs Positions,  I alluded that the parties involved in my fictional example could also have improved their outcome if they had widened their options – but that that was another post.  Well, this is another post.

Widening one’s available options is a great technique to improve the outcome of many situations – day to day decisions, major life decisions, actual “negotiations” with other parties, etc.   For purposes of this post, when I use the word ‘option’, I mean a potential way to achieve one’s goal.

It is yet another interesting phenomenon of human behavior that we tend to restrict ourselves to a very small number of options for meeting our goals.  The biggest pitfall is restricting yourself to the dichotomy: “do x or don’t do x“.  Slightly better but still pretty bad is: “do either x or y.”

Usually, there is a whole array of options available in a given situation.  Our instinct, though, is to focus exclusively on the first one or two that occur to us.  This is a huge mistake.  The first option(s) that you consider will likely have significant drawbacks.  They might not even really accomplish your goal.  You will likely end up agonizing over, fretting over, and debating these trade-offs (even if just with yourself).  Even if you don’t, there is likely a much better option available to you that you are ignoring.

Back to Bob and Alice

Consider the example of Bob from the last post.  His goal was catching up on sleep.  His plan (option) for achieving that goal was to get to bed early.  His plan (option) for that was getting home from the movie early.  His plan (option) for that was getting to the movies quickly.  His plan (option) for that was making a decision about which movie to see quickly.  And, finally, his plan (option) for that was to have a suggestion ready to go when he and Alice discussed it.  Unfortunately, Bob didn’t actually lay it out explicitly like that – even in his own mind.

Instead, Bob’s mind (like everyone else’s) was too clever by half, as they say.  His mind immediately leaped all the way back to the beginning of the process (the making a decision step) and came up with a way to speed it up.  In a sense, Bob’s mind skipped over the forest and went straight to thinking about the trees.  This issue of not stepping “outside” of a process before trying to improve it, though, is another post 😉

If Bob had paused and enunciated – even just to himself – that what he really wanted was to catch up on sleep, he could have gone further.  He could have thought creatively about the problem and widened the options available to him.  For instance, catching up on sleep doesn’t necessarily mean getting to bed early.  He could also accomplish that by getting to bed at his normal time and then sleeping in.  Perhaps that would require him to rearrange his schedule for Saturday morning.  Perhaps that’s no problem at all.  Perhaps it is a problem – but the point is that he didn’t take the time to explore the option.

Instead, he conceived of the problem very narrowly.  There was a process – going to see a movie – and he had to speed it up.  The fact that he devised this plan independently (without consulting Alice) only compounded the problem.  But that’s another post…

To be fair, there is something to be said for trying to make a decision easy for someone else – especially when you believe you’re working in their best interests – or, at least, not against them.  In this case, though, Bob didn’t know what Alice’s interests were.  At best, he assumed that Alice had an interest in seeing a movie tonight – but he didn’t confirm that assumption or check to see whether there were other interests at stake.

How to Widen Your Options

It’s one thing to point out that someone should consider more options when charting a path to a goal.  It’s quite another to actually be that person and be able to recognize or generate more options.  In subsequent posts, I’ll describe some of my favorite ways of widening options based on my experience and some of the popular literature on the subject.

Stay tuned 🙂

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