(Crossposted from the EA Forum)

I am a full-time independent consultant who specializes in strategy, research, and decision consulting for mission-driven clients. As part of my work, I regularly devise new services that I think could be high-impact for teams working on important projects. One of these innovations, the decision inventory, is cheap enough for me to implement that I’ve decided to offer a limited number of decision inventory sessions this fall on a pay-what-you-want/can basis to collaborators in the EA/LessWrong community and others doing high-impact work. My reasons for doing this are as follows:

  • EA and EA-adjacent organizations are working on some of the most important issues in the world, and if I can help make their day-to-day management practices even a little bit more sophisticated, that could have major downstream impacts that I would feel very good about.
  • Many of these organizations and projects are modestly resourced and/or don’t have dedicated budgets to hire external consultants. For these reasons, otherwise valuable projects might often fail to materialize solely because of logistical considerations.

For more about the specific service I’m offering, read on! Or if you’re ready to sign up now, visit this link.

About decision inventories

Human beings are decision-making machines: we make them all day, every day, from birth until the very end. Ironically, though, most of us would struggle to name off the top of our heads a single important decision we made this week. The explanation for that phenomenon is quite simple: the vast majority of us do not make an explicit habit of cataloguing our most important decisions, whether ahead of time or after the fact. And the same is true of the organizations we work for and in. As a result, even some of the smartest people and teams in the world end up allocating attention and resources toward decision-making almost completely subconsciously! In doing so, we continually risk prioritizing what feels most urgent or stressful in the moment rather than reserving scarce bandwidth for the highest-stakes quandaries.

Fortunately, a solution is available in the form of a simple exercise called a decision inventory. A decision inventory involves eliciting nominations of upcoming decision points from individual team members, then collectively sorting the decisions into priority tiers in which more complex, uncertain, and higher-stakes dilemmas receive more attention. This exercise offers a number of advantages:

  • It helps ensure an efficient allocation of staff resources and, preventing unimportant considerations from clogging up scarce leadership bandwidth
  • It alleviates risk to the organization by increasing the probability that important-but-not-obvious dilemmas will be surfaced and dealt with before it’s too late
  • It creates time and space to approach the most important decision dilemmas with more sophistication, seek out better options, and create more thoughtful contingency plans
  • It can facilitate the design of evaluation and data resources that directly inform strategic decisions
  • By creating a record of decisions yet to be made, it helps to establish a practice of tracking decisions and their outcomes over time, creating new learning opportunities for staff and leaders

It's incredibly easy for even very thoughtful teams to sleepwalk into making important decisions without realizing it. One of my current projects involves an organization whose mission is literally to improve institutional decision-making. A while back, we were having what seemed like a routine discussion about our circle of advisors and realized that our disagreement reflected very different ideas about who our most important target audiences were. If we hadn't taken a time-out to interrupt our discussion and explicitly switch out the tactical frame we were using for it, we would have ended up making this larger strategic decision without ever addressing it head-on. A regular practice of decision inventories can help teams keep track of the strategic choices that have yet to be resolved and avoid getting themselves into a position where they're at risk of making mistakes like these.

How decision inventories work

Decision inventories are not a completely new concept. For example, the corporate consultancy Strategic Decisions Group pioneered a similar technique for use in large companies, for example, which they call "decision agendas." And most of us who have been around organizations for long enough have facilitated or witnessed something resembling a decision inventory process without calling it by that name. In my work with dozens of different organizations as an employee or strategy consultant over the past couple of decades, however, I’ve virtually never seen decision inventories or anything remotely equivalent employed in workplace settings as a conscious and routine practice. Considering the low cost and obvious benefits, this seems very surprising!

I've tinkered with the idea in recent years with clients including the Walton Family Foundation and Houston Arts Alliance as well as my own projects to refine it for the kinds of challenges teams in the social sector face. My current process involves four stages:

  1. A preparatory phase in which team members are given a “homework assignment” to identify important decisions they face and tell us a bit about each of them
  2. Combining the decisions into a stakes/uncertainty matrix to consolidate and centralize the list of decisions and help us isolate which ones are most important
  3. A live virtual or in-person workshop to analyze the framing of each decision through a shared team perspective, surfacing relevant information and differences of opinion
  4. A “decision roadmap” delivered after the workshop that documents what the team has learned, sorts the decisions into priority tiers, and offers clear next steps for resolving each of them

This process can also be adapted to different contexts and needs, for example to perform an audit of decisions already made, or to facilitate data-gathering for asynchronous discussion and decision-making.

I believe that decision inventories offer the biggest benefit-to-cost ratio of any service I offer. For a few hours’ investment on the part of both the client’s time and mine, it yields a level of clarity on the path forward that can be hard to achieve by other means. Furthermore, the exercise itself unlocks many other possibilities for deepening the sophistication with which an organization approaches its decisions. Think about it: you can't brainstorm better options for a decision, commission research to inform a decision, or model a decision’s costs and benefits unless you know that you're making a decision in the first place. Decision inventories are the only tool I know of that can consistently short-circuit our natural, intuitive reflex to resolve ambiguities as soon as they come up, particularly in team contexts. As such, they create space for thoughtfulness and intention where none existed before.

The offer

To help more people and teams get started with decision inventories, I am making up to five decision inventory sessions available this fall to the EA community and others doing high-impact work on a pay-what-you-can basis (and yes, that includes free). If you’re intrigued by the idea but aren’t sure if it’s worth it or if you can get your organization to pay for it, we’ll work something out that makes sense for you.

Who can participate

This offer is open to anyone doing work they consider to be beneficial to the world. If you’re interested but not sure whether you fit the description, I encourage you to apply anyway – doing so is low-risk for you and there may be value in us connecting even if this particular engagement doesn’t work out. If there is more interest than spots available, I will give priority to projects that seem likely in my estimation to have a high potential for impact.

The decision inventory service is primarily designed for use in teams, but it also can be adapted for individuals doing high-impact work (such making a significant personal donation or founding a new project).

To get started

Just visit this link – you’ll need to answer a few questions about your situation and we’ll go from there.

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