Filters for thought

The best way to make decisions is to collect information most related to the system at hand. Touch a hot stove. Drop a pen. Kiss a lover. Each of these offers a direct action-feedback-action loop.

But these aren’t the interesting parts of life. The interesting parts of life are multiple people functioning at different times towards a goal that’s only shared in the sense of each person’s understanding.

Life is messy.

But we know that. Like driving across Interstate 80 with the prospect of a blizzard, we can plan accordingly. In talking with Cleveland Browns General Manager Andrew Berry, Annie Duke noted how difficult the decisions are within a team. Teams are messy! There are sunk costs, biases, entrenched interests as well as the alignment (or not) of stakeholders . But Berry knows this.

“There’s a couple things we try to do. Number one is to do the hardcore analysis removed from the emotion of the season, the player, the decision maker….

“The second part is getting a number of independent perspectives and letting them state their case. It’s easy as the decision maker to be in your own cocoon and only consider your viewpoint on a player…And the last thing we try to do is have a third-party perspective. There are a couple of things we use that aren’t in our building. As much as you try to weed out every type of bias with your internal evaluation methods, it’s to some degree impossible.” – Andrew Berry, The Alliance for Decision Making podcast, July 2021

That’s a lot of specific, helpful, in-practice advice but it is really just one thing: distance.

Distance is the idea behind base rates. It’s switching to “the outside view“. Distance is the idea behind sleeping on it. If the input to good decision making is the best information, then distance changes the information.

Berry recognizes, first, that he alone won’t make the best choice. Berry recognizes that his team will make better choices with training. Berry recognizes that no matter how much work he puts into himself and his team that they’ll still use some suboptimal information, so they get outside information too.

A friend went to a wedding and proudly said he wasn’t hungover because he alternated drinks of beer and water. That’s good design. Berry probably has good design too, don’t evaluate players within one week of a season. Maybe they do it like the Olympics, and throw out the best and worst scores. Whatever the Cleveland Browns system is, they definitely have a system for making good decisions.


Life is messy is one of Brent Beshore’s expressions and it’s a wonderful “default”. If our thinking is framed by the starting state then to start with the idea that life is messy makes a lot of other parts less so.

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