Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Desperately seeking reason(s): Franklin’s Gambit in organisational decision-making

with 3 comments

In his wonderful book on obliquity, John Kay tells of  a famous letter in which Benjamin Franklin describes a decision-making method. Here is a description of Franklin’s method, excerpted from his letter:

…my Way is, to divide half a Sheet of Paper by a Line into two Columns, writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then during three or four Days Consideration I put down under the different Heads short Hints of the different Motives that at different Times occur to me for or against the Measure. When I have thus got them all together in one View, I endeavour to estimate their respective Weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out: If I find a Reason pro equal to some two Reasons con, I strike out the three. If I judge some two Reasons con equal to some three Reasons pro, I strike out the five; and thus proceeding I find at length where the Ballance lies; and if after a Day or two of farther Consideration nothing new that is of Importance occurs on either side, I come to a Determination accordingly.

And tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to take a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra.

Modern decision making techniques often claim to do better than Franklin because they use quantitative measures to rate decision options However, as I have pointed out in  this post, measures are often misleading. There are those who claim that this can be fixed by “doing it correctly,” but this is a simplistic view for reasons I have discussed at length in this post.  So, despite all the so-called “advances” in decision making, it is still pretty much  as Franklin wrote: “the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities” .

With that for background, I can now get to the main point of this post. The reader may have wondered about my use of the word gambit rather than technique (or any of its synonyms) in the title of this post.   A quick look at this online dictionary tells us that the two words are very different:

Technique (noun): the body of specialized procedures and methods used in any specific field, especially in an area of applied science.

Gambit (noun): a manoeuvre by which one seeks to gain advantage.

Indeed, as Kay mentions in his book, Franklin’s method is often used to justify decisions that are already made – he calls this Franklin’s Gambit.

Think back to some of the recent decisions you have made: did you make the decision first and then find reasons for it or did you weigh up the pros and cons of each option before reaching your decision? If I’m honest, I would have to admit that I have often done the former. This is understandable, even defensible. When we make a decision, we have to make several assumptions regarding the future and how it will unfold. Since this is based on (some times educated) guesswork, it is only natural that we will show a preference for a choice that we are comfortable with.  Once we have settled on an option, we seek reasons that would enable us to justify our decision to to others; we would not want them to think we have made a decision based on gut-feel or personal preferences.

This not necessarily bad thing. When decisions cannot be rated meaningfully, any choice that is justifiable  is a reasonable one….providing one can convince others affected that it is so.  What one should guard against is the mindless use of data and so-called rational methods to back decisions that have no buy in.

Finally, as we all know well from experience, it is never a problem to  convince ourself of the rightness of our decision. In fact, Mr. Franklin, despite his pronouncements on Moral Algebra understood this. For, as he  once wrote:

…so convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one had a mind to do.

Indeed, “reasonable” creatures that we are, we will desperately seek reasons for the things we wish to do. The difficulty, as always, lies in convincing other reasonable creatures of our reasonableness.

Written by K

September 12, 2013 at 8:50 pm

3 Responses

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  1. I agree that using a decision tool to justify a decision already made, in some sense, is not necessarily a bad thing. Sure if falls short of the rational ideal where an appropriate (theoretically sound, empirically validated) decision tool or framework is used in order to make the decision. But post hoc analysis can have various benefits including – occasionally – prompting a reversal of the decision. BTW the Franklin method is great as far as it goes, but of course as a simple framework for deliberative decision it also has some serious limitations – for an analysis of this see http://timvangelder.com/2009/10/22/draft-introduction-to-decision-mapping-book/


    Tim van Gelder

    September 13, 2013 at 9:37 am

    • Hi Tim,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I agree that post-hoc analysis is not necessarily a bad thing, but only if decision-makers are open to viewpoints that might differ from theirs. All too often I have seen decision making tools used to justify top-down decisions that are plainly wrong-headed, accompanied by an unwillingness to revisit those decisions.

      I first learnt about Franklin’s method in your article. IMO, your blog is a terrific resource for those who want to learn about decision making – I continue to visit often and have recommended it to many friends and colleagues over the years.





      September 13, 2013 at 11:24 am

  2. […] The conventional view of decision making in organisations – that decisions should be made on the basis of facts – does not recognize this difference.  To be sure, matters that can be decided based on facts should be made on the basis of facts.  For example, a decision regarding the purchase of equipment can (often) be made based on predetermined criteria.The problem, however, is that most important decisions in organisations do not fall into this category – they have wicked elements that cannot be resolved by facts because the “facts” themselves are ambiguous. Unfortunately, decision-makers often do not understand the difference between the two types of decision problems.  A common symptom of this lack of understanding is that when confronted with a wicked decision problem, many decision-makers feel compelled to clothe their reasoning and choices in a garb of (false) objectivity. […]


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