Making career decisions in the face of uncertainty

“I just don’t know how this will pan out.”

A few months back, Maria left her marketing job at a large company in order to spend more time with her young daughter and do more interesting work. She had put a lot of thought into that decision, and was happy with it. Now, her day-to-day work with a start-up was far more intellectually stimulating than her previous job. However, the uncertainty of whether the early stage start-up would succeed nagged at her.

“Do I keep working for an unfunded start-up, or do I look for a salaried position at a funded start-up?”

Over the course of my Decision Analysis Session with Maria, we unpacked the decision she faced until she had a clearer picture of how to proceed.

When Maria first reached out to me, she had framed her decision problem as a binary one:

Binary decision

Narrow framing is the first “villain” of decision making, as the Heath brothers point out in their book, Decisive. The remedy to narrow framing is widening your options.

The first thing you should ask when faced with a decision framed with just two options is “What other options might I be leaving out?”

After some probing, Maria acknowledged a couple other options on the table:

Additional options

It turns out Maria also had her own startup idea she had been mulling in the back of her brain. Furthermore, based on her deep experience in marketing, she had also considered doing some consulting work before she took on the job at her current startup.

Once we were able to add a couple other options to the mix, I asked, “Are these options truly mutually exclusive? Is it possible to parallel path any of these options?”

In other words, did she really have to choose between staying at her current startup and pursuing her own idea? Could she do both?

Parallel path options

Ultimately, Maria wanted to continue building her skills and her network to continue to advance her career in the future. Now, she had more options that could help her achieve that goal.

“Remind me, why is it that you feel you need to make this decision?” I asked.

“Well, the startup I’m working with now is very early stage, and to be honest, I’m not sure how things will pan out. What happens if things go south in 6 months? What will happen to my career?”

Uncertainty, specifically, fear of something undesirable happening in the future, often prompts people to weigh their options in the present. That fear prompted Maria to view her decision like this:

What if something bad happens

However, that uncertainty may very well resolve itself (i.e. become a certainty) in six months. Another way of looking at things, if you wait and see what happens in six months is this:

Waiting for information

“Maria, I totally hear that the uncertainty can make you nervous. What do you gain by deciding whether to take another job now, as opposed to waiting six months?”

Maria acknowledged that she didn’t really gain much, and admitted that she just wanted to have a plan. In actuality, she already had a plan. She identified in the previous exercise that she could parallel path other efforts (e.g. working on her own startup idea, looking for a job, and/or building her network) so that in the future she would be in a better position to pursue other options. And, if she stayed at her current role to see how things played out, in six months she would have the information that would help her make a decision in the future. Identifying how you will approach a decision in the future counts as a plan.

To recap, Maria’s decision problem illustrates a few insights:

Combat narrow framing by widening your options. If you find yourself framing a decision in the binary, ask

1) What other options might I be leaving out? and

2) Are these options truly mutually exclusive, or is there a way to combine them?

Examine uncertainty and the cost of information.

Uncertainty and the fear of something bad happening makes people nervous. Think through whether discomfort is pushing you to act prematurely. If uncertainty exists, ask:

1) Is it possible to obtain (now or in the future) the information that would make this decision much easier? If so, then ask

2) What is the cost of postponing the decision until you can get that info? Could the outcomes improve if you wait? If so, is it worth waiting?

If you choose to wait for information, deciding what you will do once you have that information counts as a plan. For you planners out there, find comfort in defining some “if this, then that” scenarios.

Stay tuned for next week’s post in this Decision Lab series!

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