Many models have been developed to help us make the best possible decisions. In political matters, one sometimes wonders if our leaders ever use any of them! Nevertheless, let’s have a look at a hot political matter as a case study to see how, if politicians were to use an optimal approach, their thinking might go. Our aim is to use a topical issue, one in which we all have a vested interest, so that we might see how the use of a decision matrix could serve us in our important decisions.
The model you should use depends upon the nature of the decision. Are you able to reduce the decision to a simple yes/no? If so, the most common approach is to simply list pros vs. cons, apply a method to weigh them against one another, and whichever side the scale tips, that’s the way you go. That’s great, but life is usually more complicated. It’s actually helpful to retain multiple options because it opens up the universe of potential action. So how might you effectively weigh five or more options against each other?
To illustrate, let’s look at the question of how best to help the people in Syria who have been displaced from their homes because of ongoing armed conflict between as many as a dozen distinct groups. The agitators are polarized to varying degrees between the Shia government of Assad and Sunni rebel groups (which includes ISIS trying to expand its nascent caliphate.) There are Kurdish groups involved in the fighting as well who are friendly to neither. The whole area is now a powder keg as Russian and Iranian interests align with Assad, American interests most closely align with the Kurds, and the Sunnis employ terrorist tactics as a part of an expansionist vision that ultimately affects all of western civilization. For the sake of brevity, we will have to paint with a rather broad brush.
With that qualification, there are basically five responses available to the United States. At the extremes, we could either open the floodgates to as many as we can possibly relocate to America or refuse to take any action on their behalf whatever. Between these poles are three basic possibilities – bring as many as we can as long as they do not show up on intelligence reports as active in extremist or jihadist efforts, apply a much higher standard and bring only those who can be positively shown to be non-participants in jihadist activities or groups, or bring none here but expend American resources and influence to find them suitable refuge in surrounding countries.
To determine which of those five options is best, we must analyze the expected costs and benefits. Again, this picture in reality is complicated, but for the sake of our discussion, we’ll condense them down to four considerations. First, how does our action benefit the refugees? Second, how does our action benefit Americans and their interests? Third, what are the costs involved? Finally, we must consider the risks of each particular course of action.
Considerations like these are often difficult to quantify in absolute terms. But we may agree to and assign relative values. While such an approach doesn’t yield absolute answers, the resulting analysis offers insight as to which action would yield the best net result. The following chart is one such possibility:
Of course I can’t be certain that my calculus is accurate considering that I am not privy to intelligence reports, international negotiations, or detailed cost analysis. This is however, my best shot as a thinking American citizen who pays attention to current events.
In light of the high burden, risks, and cost of bringing Syrians in large number to the American homeland, it may not be surprising that Options 4 and 5, those which avoid this action, are preferable. But it is rather close between Options 2 and 3, conditionally bringing some of the Syrians to America and Option 5, simply taking no action. This warrants a closer look.
When you use a decision matrix, you should recognize that not all considerations are equal. For instance, is it a responsibility or obligation of the American government to see to the welfare of non-Americans? To the degree that you believe it so, is this consideration equal to the Constitutionally-mandated task of securing the defense specifically for American citizens? No. We should help, but not to the degree that it hurts Americans.
Likewise, how do we really determine cost and risk? We have the short term logistical cost of screening and moving Syrians. Then we have long term costs because they are not all going to be able to support themselves in a new country where they do not speak the language and have little to none of the skills in demand in an advanced country. So that means there will be an ongoing financial and possibly social drain.
It is also unclear whether moving these people to America is best for them in the long term. Refugees are desperate and vulnerable. As they stabilize, they’re likely to desire a return to normalcy. Is it unreasonable to anticipate that this might be more difficult in a country far removed in both distance and in culture from their home? I assigned the highest relative value, 5, to helping the refugees by bringing as many as possible to America. It could easily be lower.
The risks are perhaps the most volatile and controversial portion of the issue. The Obama administration thus far seems to downplay this part of the decision matrix. President Obama himself chided the Republican Presidential hopefuls critical of his proposed actions saying that they seemed to be as afraid of Syrian women and children as they were of CNBC moderators. I haven’t heard any say so yet, but his opponents might point out that not two hours after the President’s snarky statement, a woman blew herself up in a suicide bombing in besieged Paris in an attempt to murder police. They might also ask the President where these women and children to whom he refers are in the light that 72% of the Syrian refugees are thus far fighting-age men. This is a suspicious anomaly.
Regardless of degree, it is not reasonable to discount completely risk factors, especially considering that jihadists have admitted that infiltration through refugee groups is one of their strategies. We could argue about whether 5% or .5% of the refugees pose a serious threat. The fact is that the more who come to America, the greater the risk that more terroristic attacks could result.
In order to incorporate the disparity between risk factors, we can apply a weighting scale. In the following chart, we simply acknowledge that risks and American interests are, say, twice as important as costs and the interests of Syrian refugees.
An interesting thing happens when you take this deeper look. Yes, Option 4 retains the preferred spot. But Option 3, the selection of relatively fewer refugees under stringent screening vaults into second place. In both analyses, Option 1 remains a distant last place and should be removed from consideration. (Unfortunately, this seems to be the path that the Obama Administration prefers. One might wonder how their considerations and weighting would differ from this one, and why.)
Whether you gain consensus in your organization through a formal decision matrix, the process is worthwhile. It encourages the team to find answers in murky areas. It helps focus discussion on facts rather than invective. As a leader, you both teach your team to see how you reach your decisions and you also learn from them as they shed light in areas you did not previously consider. This habit is good for organizational health.