Satisfying Decisions…

My wife’s car is approaching its last legs. It has been a part of our lives for twelve years. Our children have grown up being driven in that car. We have loved that car. It has looked after us and we have looked after it. It was in for a check-up last week and we were waiting for the call to say it was ready. That wasn’t the call. Apparently the engine could seize up for good (well bad) at any moment…

We had to go looking for a new car on Saturday. Whenever we have looked at cars before it has been planned. This search wasn’t planned. We had no plan. We came up with a plan on the way. Go to every showroom and trust my wife’s instinct.

I have thought a great deal about decision making over the years and I have concluded that I am (more) instinctive about my decision making. Instinctive decision making combined with subsequent rationalisation of the correctness of my decision.

One such scenario was the decision on our first new car. The moment we saw it standing in the sunlight outside the showroom we both knew we were going to buy it – even down to the choice of colour. We then spent a couple of weeks convincing ourselves that we would all fit into it, that the fuel consumption was OK, and that we could afford it. But we had already decided…instinctively.

So our current impromptu car searching strategy was based entirely on this experience. I knew my wife would know her next car when she saw it. I would know which car it was by her response. And she did. And I did.

There is much published theory on decision making but my sense is that we fall into two camps – those who have to satisfy some pre-set criteria (instinctive maybe)…and those who look to maximise (and examine every) selection criteria.

Those who need to be satisfied establish pre-determined criteria (which can be very high) but as soon as these criteria are achieved, the decision is made and everyone moves on.

The converse applies to those who seek to maximise…individuals who inherently want to make the best decision possible – the best possible choice in any given situation. Even when enough information is apparently available to allow a decision, no decision can be made (or action taken) until every conceivable option has been examined (often requiring more data). And yes, this will inevitably make decision making for such individuals into a daunting task.

Fortunately the theory holds that it is rare for any of us to make our decisions entirely in one mode or the other. We all tend to have decisions where we seek to maximize. And others where we need only satisfy. But as with many behavioural traits it is helpful to be aware, to acknowledge and above all to be happy with how we make choices.

In our industry there are some decisions that are simple to get right. An unsafe compound should always be stopped; an active and clean asset that achieves Proof of Concept should always be advanced. But if all our decisions were that straightforward then our work would be easy…and not as enjoyable. Its moments when some, but not all, of our target criteria are met that provoke more debate and where opinions diverge.

All of which is why I involve others when I am making important decisions (personal or professional). Easy decisions are easy. Hard decisions can be made easier with insights, observations or context from family, friends or colleagues who are a step or two further away.




About Steve Street

I have worked in R&D within the Pharmaceutical industry for over 30 years. Up until April 2012 all of my career had been with one company, but that has now changed. I left that company and took up a new role on May 1, 2012 - still very much within the Pharmaceutical industry and again based in the UK. I have been blogging every week now for over 10 years but only on an external site since January 2012. Email updates of the blogs can be requested using the ‘follow’ option within Wordpress. The blogs are only ever my personal view of what I see, think and feel. I am delighted if you agree and find value; happy if you disagree with my views and overjoyed if you feel motivated to comment. Most of all I am simply grateful that you read. Cheers Steve
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6 Responses to Satisfying Decisions…

  1. Dimitris Agrafiotis says:

    Hi Steve,

    Another very interesting and timely topic. As luck would have it, I am looking for a new car myself. But let me start from the instinct part, I will come to the car later.

    I, too, consider myself an instinctive decision maker. I just trust my instinct, and I never had reasons to question it. In fact, I trust my instinct even when I (knowingly) make the ‘wrong’ decisions. Trusting your instinct means that you are able to predict the outcome, it doesn’t mean that you can make the right choice. Nothing in life is black and white, and the outcome is rarely defined along a single dimension. Most decisions represent a compromise across multiple, often competing objectives, and our task is to find the best possible one. Most of us intuitively seek the Pareto optimum. However, the problem is not maximizing the function, the problem is assigning the coefficients (importance) to each objective. And that’s where subjectivity comes in.

    We also need to be cautious as how we judge the outcomes. Here’s the funny thing about decisions in real life. A decision is a choice between two or more alternatives. Once the decision is made, only one of the alternatives materializes, the other ones are never tested. The control experiment is never done. A positive outcome doesn’t mean that the decision you made was the best one, it simply means that it wasn’t bad… at least for now. How many cases do you know of compounds killed in development after a thoughtful analysis of the data (and the broader objectives of the company), only to be resurrected later by people who just had a different opinion on how to advance them?

    You are very wise to involve others when making important decisions. In 2011, we published a very nice paper at J&J entitled “Library enhancement through the wisdom of crowds” (J. Chem. Info. Model., 2011, 51, 3275-3286). It describes an approach to augmenting the diversity of a corporate chemical library by tapping into the collective experience of the entire internal scientific community. Below I recite parts of the introduction and conclusions of that paper, which I think are very pertinent to the theme of your post.


    In his 2004 book “TheWisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations”, Surowiecki argues that decisions made by a group of individuals are often better than those made by a single expert. From estimating the weight of an ox in a county fair to predicting future oil prices or offering audience advice to contestants on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, there is ample empirical evidence that a collection of people with different points of view but the same motivation to make a good guess can produce predictions that are, on aggregate, more accurate than those of any single individual, no matter how knowledgeable or intelligent. Even when the individual members are not particularly well-informed or unbiased, the group can still collectively arrive at a good decision. Surowiecki attributes this observation to our imperfect nature as decision makers: We generally have less information than we would like. We have limited foresight into the future. Most of us lack the ability — and the desire — to make sophisticated cost benefit calculations. Instead of insisting on finding the best possible decision, we will often accept one that seems good enough. And we often let emotion affect our judgment. Yet despite all these limitations, when our imperfect judgments are aggregated in the right way, our collective intelligence is often excellent.

    Of course, not all crowds make good decisions. They can often turn into mindless herds or irrational mobs, following the latest fashion trend, creating stock market bubbles, or trampling each other in football stadiums and department stores. There are four essential characteristics that distinguish intelligent crowds: (1) diversity of opinion, (2) independence, (3) decentralization, and (4) aggregation. For a crowd to be wise, members must have private information, even if it is just a personal interpretation of commonly known facts, must be allowed to form their opinion without influence from others around them, must be able to draw on local experience and knowledge, and must have a mechanism for combining their individual opinions in order to reach a collective judgment.


    The library enhancement approach presented in this paper stemmed from a desire to tap into the collective wisdom and experience of our global medicinal chemistry community, and an even deeper organizational desire to decentralize decision making, empower our scientists, and give them ownership and accountability for the outcome. In designing this experiment, we took all necessary precautions to guard against factors that could lead to a poor collective decision, including (1) homogeneity, by allowing input from multiple demographic groups with diverse backgrounds and experience, (2) centralization, by eliminating organizational and/or intellectual authority as a deciding factor, (3) division, by synthesizing input in a fair and unbiased way, (4) imitation, by ensuring that each person’s choices were invisible to others until all of the votes were collected, thus preventing intentional or unintentional information cascade, and (5) emotion, by allowing scientists to cast their votes in private, thereby eliminating any form of peer pressure.

    Poor decisions arise when intellectual conformity replaces independence of thought, when the members of the community, for whatever reason, become too conscious of the opinions of others and begin to emulate them. Authority, organizational or intellectual, poses the greatest risk. Its influence can be subtle or direct, unintentional or deliberate. The subtle aspects were identified by Aristotle in his artistic proofs of persuasion: ethos, pathos, logos—the credibility of the speaker, his emotional or motivational appeal, and the logical grounding of his arguments. Although crowds can be swayed very easily by persuasive people, the main reason for intellectual conformity is that there is a systematic flaw in the system for making decisions. The results of our experiment are fully consistent with prior literature on what confers drug- or lead-like characteristics to a chemical substance. Whether the strategy will yield the desired results in the long term with respect to quality, novelty, and number of hits/leads remains to be seen. It is also unclear whether this strategy can lead to sufficient differentiation from a competitive stand-point. In the meantime, the only undeniable benefit we can point to is that we harnessed our chemists’ opinions to select lead-like molecules that are totally within reasonable property ranges, that fill diversity holes, and that have been purchased for screening, and we did so in a way that promoted greater transparency, greater awareness, greater collaboration, and a renewed sense of involvement and engagement of our employees.

    Now, back to where we started, which was the choice of a car. Price, affordability, reliability, safety, size, comfort, fuel economy, looks, long-term value retention, the list is endless. Personally, I found my Pareto optimum in the new Lexus ES300h (hybrid). The only remaining task is to convince my local dealer that my offer is reasonable. Democritus said it best. There is only atoms and space, the rest is opinion.

  2. Earl Major says:


    Our oldest vehicle, driven by our 21 year-old son, is one week in age older than our 17 year-old daughter. The next oldest vehicle was purchased in August of 2001. The third, in June of 2011.

    To be sure, our tendency is to utilize vehicles beyond their useful purpose. Again, we are birds of a feather, it seems…



  3. Fiona Edwards says:

    strangely enough – had exactly the same car scenarion this weekend as well – with pretty much the same outcome on which car !

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