Using Data to Back Up Your Decisions

Why on Earth would an English major need numbers to make decisions? All of our work is so liberal artsy–so squishy and unquantifiable. What possible use could numbers be in our daily lives? However, the more time I spend with engineers, the more I’ve come to appreciate having some data to back up what would otherwise be shoot-from-the-hip, emotion-based decisions.

I first encountered the numbers-based decision process when I was attending a career planning class at Disney. Let’s say you’re trying to decide which job to take or which industry to pursue. Your list might look something like this:

  • Aerospace engineering
  • Automotive
  • Computer programming/web documentation
  • Environmental management
  • Healthcare

The idea being, you take a list of all of your possible choices/priorities and pit them against each other to see which priority gets the most “wins.” Given a choice between aerospace and automotive, which one wins? Given a choice between aerospace and computer programming, which one wins? And so forth on down the line. Then you start with automotive and repeat the process until you’ve tallied up which choice gets the most “wins.”

Even a list of “simple” choices can have multiple variables to them. For example, if you had a choice of jobs, you might need to consider things like pay, location, benefits, commute time, proximity to family, etc. Or, if you were shopping for a new home,  your “Location, location, location” factors might include proximity to work, quality of school district, distance from cultural activities, etc., in addition to the more specific items like price, condition of the home, etc. One thing I started doing, in addition to the “competition” format above was to start attaching numbers to the various items above. Sometimes those numbers could be concrete (pay, distance, etc.) and sometimes they’re subjectives (quality of schools). You can assign an arbitrary number to your various choices, say, from 1 to 10 or 1 to 5, and then score them individually before adding up everything under the various choices.

Working with engineers, of course, adds another level of complexity to things. While I was at Zero Point Frontiers, they had a Decision Tool that combined the two approaches above and made things a bit more “scientific” by adding weighting to the various choices. In this case, the tool did the competition-style evaluation of each factor in a decision first to determine which factor was the most important to you. Once the factors (figures of merit or FOMs) are selected, you then scored each of your choices’ individual FOMs. The software then had its own method of multiplying or adding the various FOMs by their weight to show what choice you’d end up with if you go strictly “by the numbers.”

I used this process/tool this past week to shop for a new car. I narrowed down my type of vehicle first (I’m a rather straightforward blue sedan kind of guy), I started looking at my specific figures of merit: price, aesthetics, mileage (I buy used), “extras,” and model year. What surprised me was that while I had an idea of what my favored choice might be, even after I reevaluated and tinkered with my “weights,” I still ended up with a choice that, while on the list, was not my first choice. After three attempts to move the numbers about, I finally gave up trying to put my thumb on the scale of my “favorite” and decided to give the car with the best numbers a test drive. Again to my surprise, I ended up buying that car, despite also test-driving my original “favorite.”

Mind you, personal decisions involving large expenditures can still be made based on “gut,” and that’s not entirely a bad thing. However, it is useful to put some analysis and numbers behind your decision-making process to make sure you’re not putting too much weight behind some unsuspected bias. and who knows? If the numbers tell you a different story from your gut, you might end up with a better decision in the long run!

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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