Think back to elementary school when your teacher asked you to fold a paper in half and put headings at the top such as good/bad, +/-, for/against, advantages/disadvantages – or maybe they even used the terms pros and cons. (For any of you teachers or parents out there – we use fancier names like T-charts or Graphic Organizers now!)
That was your first introduction to using pros and cons as a decision model.
Maybe you used a pros and cons list to analyze the decision a character made in a novel? Or you decided on a position to take in a debate about an environmental issue based on the pros and cons you researched about the topic?
Your job was to find and organize information, compare the two sides and make some kind of decision.
Since we are talking about school, I’ll put my teacher “hat” on and give you a little quiz about this model. A pros & cons list would work pretty well for one of the decision questions below, but not for the others.
Can you pick out the one question that could work and explain why a pros & cons list might not work for the others?
- What house should we buy?
- Should we redesign our website or hire someone to upgrade it?
- Which kind of computer would best meet my needs?
- Should we get a dog?
- Where should we go on vacation?
Maybe you used a test taking strategy and chose the longest answer? If you did, you would be wrong on this quiz! Maybe you looked at the two questions starting with “should” and eliminated those – wrong again!
Hopefully you read the choices and noticed a pattern. The way the questions are worded, four of the questions have multiple options and one does not.
Which is the yes or no (single option) question? Let’s look at a pros and cons list for that answer!
Should we get a dog?
What do you see as the benefits (pros) of using this model?
- easy way to compare a situation where you’ve got one option (get a dog or don’t get a dog)
- possibly a good use for simpler, low cost or low “energy” decisions (to me a dog is a long term decision, unfortunately to many others – it is not)
- it can be a simple, fast way to solve a problem (get some paper and make a chart!)
- it uses a process which is more deliberate than just discussing it (writing = deeper thinking)
What about the drawbacks (cons)?
- questions tend to be narrowly framed (and we know broad questions are better)
- it may over simplify results (or you may fail to do things like seek the opinions of others)
- you can rush to judgement (by not taking the necessary time to think through the decision)
- it can easily be manipulated to match the decision you want to make
- the “chart” makes it look like a more complicated (fancy) process than it is
- it is not always helpful in actually making a decision
Could you use the chart to determine if you should get a dog? I just don’t find it very helpful at all. There are just as many pros as cons – so it is hard to know what to do.
Personally, I would try to avoid using a pros and cons list for decisions that will have a big effect on your life or for decisions that are costly.
I might use a pros and cons list for – Should we buy a new couch? (For something that really doesn’t matter that much if we make a mistake…)
So if you are going to use a pros and cons list, here are a few ideas to increase the chances it will help you make a better decision.
- If there is one option, you can consider using a pros and cons chart. But leave words like “or” out of the question to prevent multiple options. (Should we buy a couch? Not – Should we buy a couch or a recliner?)
- If there is more than one option, consider using a decision matrix such as the one outlined here.
- Before you start your list, think of related topics that will make it more complete. (For buying a couch – cost, comfort, size, style, color.)
- Always compare to the original situation. (Your pros and cons should be challenged against the old couch. Use words like more or less to help quantify the statement – the new couch will be more comfortable, seat less people, etc.)
- Avoid combining two issues into one statement. (Low cost and very comfortable should be two different items.)
- Consider reversing the question. Should we keep our couch? Rather than – Should we buy a couch? Do your pros and cons list for this question and it may reveal blindspots you had not considered.
- Consider asking the advice of others. Have they had a similar experience? Can they see bias in your reasoning? (Again, not a big issue with a couch, but with a dog – definitely consider checking with others!)
Hopefully some of those ideas will help you make a better decision. But you may also have to consider ranking items on your list too. As I showed with the “Should we get a dog” question – what do you do with the lists?
You need to put some kind of feelings or judgments around what is most important in order to make the decision. (This is very similar to ranking goals in the decision-making process I use.)
If you assign a scale (for example 1-4) to the extremely important items (4) and rank them down to the least important items (1) and then add up the totals, it may “show” you the better choice.
But keep in mind that using pros and cons lists to make decisions may still end up frustrating you. We know that broader decision questions lead to more creative options – which lead to more satisfying solutions with fewer regrets.
One last point, if I had used a pros and cons list to decide whether to take an extended contract at my full-time job, I likely would have stayed at my job. The pros and cons list would not have helped me at all and I would have defaulted into what I have always done – go to school and teach.
Should I take the full-time job?
Like I said when I first started my blog, I am really enjoying time at home and being able to make choices about the jobs I take and the times I choose to work.
Can you think of the last time you used a pros and cons list to make a decision? What were you deciding? Did the model work for that decision? Have you ever tried to use a pros and cons list for a decision with multiple options? (I HAVE…) Were you stuck with a bunch of lists and no good way to really compare them?