Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage News QCon London: The Art, Science and Psychology of Decision-Making

QCon London: The Art, Science and Psychology of Decision-Making

At QCon London 2024, Hannes Ricklefs, head of architecture at the BBC, gave a well-received talk on decision-making, "The Art, Science and Psychology of Decision Making."

Ricklefs summarised the key reasons behind applying art, science and psychology to the discipline of decision-making, focusing on appropriate methodologies to use and the effects of biases on our ability to make good decisions in both a personal and business context.

"If I make three good decisions a day, that's enough, and they should be as high-quality as I can make them." - Jeff Bezos

Ricklefs introduced the session by quoting Jeff Bezos on decision-making and told a personal story about working in a medical context and how important structured, unbiased decision-making can be when these decisions can mean life and death. He foreshadowed the importance of using a structured framework to make decisions and suggested some common decisions to make before beginning this process. Firstly, how to decide who is part of the decision-making group, and secondly, how to decide what constitutes a decision that should follow this framework.

Personality Types

Ricklefs talked about the use of personality tests to help understand the shape of a decision-making team. For example, using TetraMap to understand personality types (water, fire, earth and air) to build trust and relationships, and CliftonStrengths to explore strengths and weaknesses and areas for improvement.

He spoke about several aspects of understanding how we behave in both our work and personal lives. This included understanding the PAC (parent, adult, child) model to see how we communicate with each other, understanding our drivers (the powerful unconscious motivators that we learnt when growing up), and how to properly reflect on what we say is crucial in making good decisions.

"Find out more about each other and the teams you are working with"


He went on to explain how important it is to understand the biases within ourselves -- and how that in itself is quite difficult. Ricklefs suggested that we can be overconfident in our own skills, and he shared a list of questions to ask to uncover and resolve biases. Examples were talking through the objectives behind a decision from a personal perspective and listening to those of others to understand the motivations and emotions that come into making decisions.

Ricklefs stated how important it is to iterate on this repeatedly, to come up with a big list of options to work with and to include unlikely options, documenting why they are unlikely, as these provide useful context to make the decision.

Asking Good Questions

Ricklefs talked about how we can respond differently to situations depending on the wording of a question or statement. Changing the framing of a question can help, for example, by asking a negative question to stimulate problem-solving. Anchoring can also be another tactic to use, as in a negotiation, we can easily be overly influenced by the first option suggested. He advised always questioning where statements come from - and to follow up with clarifying questions to ensure that everyone has been properly understood. The importance of everyone in the group having a shared understanding can’t be overstated.

He described the use of a decision matrix, where all relevant stakeholders vote on the likelihood of success of each option, scoring choices from 1 to 5 on how likely that option is to support the objective.

"Outcome bias erodes your sense of risk and makes you blind to errors"

Ricklefs concluded by restating his four key steps to effective decision-making:

  • Describe the Problem: carefully defining and writing down the decision, and defining who is part of the process and where the authority lies
  • Identify Key Objectives: identifying the critical elements of the decision in-depth and exploring existing judgements and biases
  • Explore the Options: anticipate as many options as possible, including the option of doing nothing
  • Make the Decision: use a decision matrix to compare the options available to the objectives

The recording of Ricklefs' QCon London talk will be made available on InfoQ over the coming months.

Access recorded QCon London talks with a Video-Only Pass.

About the Author

Rate this Article