Thursday, October 28, 2010

The wonderful nightmare of 3.5 million career choices

Time to read this post: 3 minutes (no dawdling)

Sally: I'd like the chef salad please with oil and vinegar on the side, and the apple pie a la mode.
Waitress: Chef and apple a la mode.
Sally: But I'd like the pie heated, and I don't want the ice cream on top. I want it on the side, and I'd like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it. If not, then no ice cream, just whipped cream, but only if it's real. If it's out of the can, then nothing.
Waitress: Not even the pie?
Sally: No, just the pie, but then not heated.
When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Sometimes we make life too complicated. I was the team leader at my strategy consulting firm, working for one of the world’s largest technology companies on their telecom strategy. Our client wanted us to evaluate every opportunity for them by geography, by carrier, by user type, by step in the value chain, by product, by value proposition. There were over 3.5 million opportunities to consider. And we only had six weeks. I calculated that if we assessed one opportunity per minute it would only take us seven years to complete. Assuming we didn’t sleep (which was a reasonable assumption).

Of course, being strategy consultants we managed to reduce the entire project into a decision for the client between three strategic choices. 1) Make a bold acquisition 2) Try and do something dramatic on your own  3)  Keep calm & carry on (but miss out on lots of $$).   I don’t mean to belittle our work, I actually think we did a first-class job at tackling that issue, what I am more interested in is the issue that our client was in – that of being overwhelmed by choices.

In psychology circles, this circumstance is known as the ‘paradox of choice’. Barry Schwartz wrote quite a good book about it and like everyone these days, spoke about it at TED.

Businesses face a paradox of choice over which consumers to target, which products to supply. Consumers face one when it comes to signing up to the right mobile phone plan. And we all face it when trying to choose between different career paths. Whatever job or career we choose, we fear missing out on all the other choices that we are implicitly turning down.

Personally I faced it last week when trying to decide where to go travelling with my wife and daughter. We opened the atlas and, it turns out, it’s a big world out there with lots to see and experience. This was clearly a good problem to have.

What I find interesting is that when faced with an overload of permutations & combinations, we often don’t make the wrong choice. It’s more subtle than that, instead we hit the snooze button on the choice and simply do nothing. This explains why people don’t sign up to retirement plans in their 20s. By selecting from the plethora of financial options out there, we risk picking the wrong one. Instead why not just agree with ourselves that we’ll come back to it in a year. Which of course we don’t.

A good friend of mine, Dan is one of the most talented strategic minds of his generation. He got a top first from Oxford, went to BCG and then Harvard. He is extremely calculating about everything he does, every career move that he makes. But as his friends, we tease him about how long it takes him to make a decision. After his MBA he decided against going back into consulting because he wanted to figure out the optimal career move. Four years later and he had drifted between part-time consulting work and then landed a sub-optimal strategy job while he waited to make the perfect decision. Upon reflection he told me that he wished he had just made a “good enough choice” straight after his MBA and got on with life.

Dan was trying to optimize between 3.5 million career choices. But by the time he had computed the answer to this ultimate question, the world had moved on and then there were 3.5 million new choices to optimize against. Perhaps what we all need is to borrow a lesson from the strategy consultants and consider what are the big three strategy choices that we are faced with. And then we can get on with living and enjoying life.
Tough questions
- What are the 3 strategic career choices that you need to choose between?
- If you have no idea, who can help you frame them one a single sheet of paper?
- How will you make your decision?

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