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Friday, November 7, 2014

Why we should choose to have less choice

[Also available as a podcast]

Everyone likes to have choice

No, that's not quite correct. These days people demand choice, especially in the arena of consumer goods and services.

The more choice the better, it would seem - or at least the manufacturers would have you think so, as you try to pick out a new cell phone from the hundreds of similar models available on any given day. 


But the truth is we don't handle choice all that well. Choice means change and uncertainty - and offering too much choice can literally stop you in your tracks - or make you leave the shop dazed and confused, without buying anything.

Let's look at another example - a common product consumed by millions every day, to which many seem utterly addicted.

Of course, I am talking about coffee.

Up until the late 1970's / early 1980's in North America, there was just coffee. Plain old coffee with a few, limited choices - filtered, or percolated. You could add milk (homogenized, 2% or skim), full cream, or just black - and a few lumps of sweetener if you preferred (sugar, honey, or artificial sweetener).

Somehow, people managed to get by - for hundreds of years - with simple coffee choices. However, if you think about it, there was actually a lot of choice to work with.

2 brewing styles
5 liquid mix type options
3 sweetener type options
= (2 x 5 x 3) = 30 basic combinations to satisfy your caffeine cravings.

Well, of course it was not really that simple. You also needed to consider quantities - large, medium or small coffee, how much milk, and don't forget whitener powders - and how many spoons or sachets of sweetener. Oh, and don't forget the different types of coffee beans, and a few flavored coffee beans.

Suddenly, you could easily have 300-400 different combinations that somehow need to be filtered through before you finally get your cup of coffee.

It's enough to make you quite anxious - so you'd better have a coffee to settle those nerves.  Agh!

However, we all managed pretty well with that level of caffeine choice. Because once you had tried a few variants, you generally found one you liked, and most people stuck with that. Suddenly, there was no more "choice" when you ordered coffee - you selected your preferred combination, and all would be well until they ran out of one of your ingredients, and you had to make do with 2% instead of full cream. For many, it was an unsettling event, because they had to make a new choice, and choice meant change.

Getting that old cup of coffee was pretty quick too - someone usually had a pot on a warming plate, and a waitress would come and 'warm up your cup', then you carried on your conversation while sipping your plain, old fashioned cheap cup of coffee.

Because plain and cheap it was - and frankly, pretty horrible compared to much of today's coffee.

Thank goodness for the widespread adoption of expresso-based coffee - it definitely changed our lives. But aside from the huge increase in price and upward trend in quality, was it really for the better?

A Better Cup

Today, the pace of change has us rushing around trying to do more things with less (and less time) than we have ever experienced before. We are expected to produce our outputs faster - and so in turn, we expect those who serve us to be faster too.

That might be fine except for one big problem.

At the same time that more demands are being placed on everyone, everyone also wants to have more choice while they are at it. We want it all, in seventeen color options, twelve sizes to choose from - and we want it to be the best quality, the cheapest price and we want it delivered this afternoon, between 3:45 and 4:05pm (otherwise the delivery will be free, it says so on the sign).


Or at least, we think we want that much choice.

Think back to your projects for a minute. Are you more successful in getting a change request approved when you provide the project sponsor twenty-seven different options and costs - or when you offer them only two or three options to choose from?

It must be twenty-seven options, right? Because we all want as much choice as possible.


Your sponsor does not want to work that hard - they simply don't have the time to review all of the combinations, because they have other priorities and projects to attend to. So they leave the meeting in disgust, confused about all of the options, and uncertain about your ability to lead the project. Not a great outcome.

So what do you do? You sift through those twenty seven options, rationalize them at the project team level, apply some stringent criteria, a dash of cost-benefit analysis, and you manage to whittle the list of potential options down to two or three (but no more than four). Better yet, as you reduced the set of options, you also spent more time discussing and documenting the various costs, benefits, risks and other factors that apply to each option.

So the next time you meet with the project sponsor (giving them ample reading time ahead of the meeting), you sit down with them, discuss the smaller set of options, and the pros and cons of each. The sponsor quickly makes a decision, and signs off the request. They leave the meeting ten minutes early with a smile, because that's just enough time to get a nice coffee from the cafe on the corner before their next meeting.

More choices cause anxiety, stress and uncertainty - because most people simply can't handle a large number of options very well at all. We want it simple, and we want the decision to be easy.


Not only does too much choice cause anxiety and stress, it also wastes a lot of time. Think of all the time you stood staring at the shelf when you were shopping for an item that had a lot of choices available. You would take one box off the shelf, stare at it, read the details, then pick a similar looking box off the shelf. You would study that one, hesitate, put one of them back, then pick an other. Thirty or forty minutes later, you have only managed to move a few steps along the aisle, and are no closer to making a decision. Twenty-three more options left to consider.

"But wait," you say - "The more choice there is, the longer it takes to consider the options. That's just straight math. And you don't want to make a bad choice!"

Well true, but how do you know if you will actually make the best choice anyway? Plus, standing there for so long just makes a person thirsty. Time for another coffee.


Years ago I was in Houston, heading off to the customer office with three colleagues. It was a bit of a ritual to stop and get a good expresso coffee on the way to a customer site; especially as the coffee was covered under your daily meal expense limit. Otherwise it was too expensive to have every day.

We were running a few minutes behind, but the driver pulled into the drive-through lane of a popular expresso coffee chain anyway, driven to have that quality caffeine fix. The line of vehicles moved very slowly, which made us more and more anxious as we realized we were going to be late - the question now was by how much.

"They are so sloooow," one colleague complained.

"It would have been faster to go in," commented another.

"What's taking so long?" asked the driver, banging one hand on the steering wheel.

Finally, we got up to the window, and I realized the nature of the problem as my colleagues placed their orders.

"Grande Trim Half-Caf Mochachino, two sugars and a twist of lemon."

"Vente Caramel machiatto, triple shot, full foam, with the caramel swirl on the top."

"Vente triple shot americano, whipped cream on top and three sugars on the side."

Then it was my turn.

"Vente. Hazelnut. Latte" I quickly rattled off, then turned to my colleagues.

"You know, the reason the line takes so long is because coffee orders like yours are so complicated. It's your fault!"

They were not impressed, but I had learned something important.

Sometimes too much choice can be a bad thing. This is especially true when the customer is upset you are late, and even more so because you wasted that extra time getting your fancy coffee.  As the meeting starts, they sit glaring at you, sipping the filtered office coffee they had made especially for you. Not the best way to start the first day of meetings with a new customer.

The Simple Choice

A year later, I was in Memphis working for another end client. My colleagues who had been working there for a while took me out for dinner and to see the sights. We wandered into the famous Peabody Hotel, which is well known for its house ducks who live on the roof. Every day they are escorted down the elevator, then waddle out onto the red carpet and over to the fountain in the lobby. They spend a good portion of the day paddling about in the fountain, and then in the late afternoon, they hop out of the fountain, and follow the bellman back into the elevator, and back up to their other home on the roof. 

I never managed to be there at the right time to see the ducks, but I loved hearing the story.

As we exited the lobby, we crossed the street and began walking down a poorly lit alley. I had worked with these people for several years, so I was not overly concerned, but something did not feel right walking down an alley in Memphis in the evening. Memphis was known at the time to have some violent neighborhoods, and I didn't know enough to tell if we were going into one. So I held back, just a bit.

But my colleagues walked on, motioning me past the second dumpster, and down a brick stairwell. We entered a very crowded BBQ restaurant called the Rendezvous, and politely made our way through the crowd to the hostess desk. Within a few minutes, we were escorted on a winding trail through the restaurant, then seated at a large table. The place was packed full, with barely enough room to pull the chairs back from the table. 

As soon as we were seated, a brusque older waiter pushed between the tables and put a loaf of cut white bread on the plastic red-and-white checkered table cloth. He pulled out a pen and a pad of paper from his apron pocket, and sized up the table.

"Sweet or unsweet?" he asked.

He was talking about iced tea. Each person quickly replied with their selection. Someone tried to order a Coke and he just glared at them. 

"Um, sweet, I guess," they stammered. He nodded.

Then he pointed his pen at each person around the table. 

"You'll have one pound of ribs. You- big guy, pound and a half at least. You - one pound. You - two pounds. You - one pound," and so on as he worked around the table.

"Wet or dry?" he asked, pointing his pen at me.

"What?" I asked, not knowing what he meant.

The colleague to my left whispered "BBQ Sauce on your ribs, or dry rubbed spices. Choose dry."

"Um, Dry please," I said, then the others made their selection.

He nodded, and tucked the pen back into his apron. "Be out with the corn bread shortly."

And that was it. A full meal ordered - and we only made two small choices each. The rest were made for us - and we were not even allowed to choose a different type of drink. At first, I was a bit annoyed - but as dinner arrived and I worked my way through the best rack of ribs I have ever had in my life, I decided it didn't matter.

Just like the scenario with the sponsor of your project, sometimes having limited choice is the best thing for you.


Choice is a double-edged sword. If you have too few options, you won't be confident that you are choosing the right thing - you may feel you are missing something important. But too many choices can quickly deadlock your thinking process, as you get bogged down in confusing and often conflicting details.

The key is to reduce the dizzying number of options down to a manageable few - as soon as  it is practical to do so. A shop keeper who provides too many options risks losing sales, just as a shop with only one or two options for an item might lose out to a competitor with a couple more product choices. 

In many situations, simplifying the options comes down to trust. When you research a larger group of potential options and reduce those down to a manageable number for your sponsor to review, they should be confident that you have done your research, and have discarded many of the less appealing or impractical options in a sensible fashion. As you present the clear pros and cons of the remaining options, it makes their decision-making that much easier, and their trust and respect for you will likely grow as well. 

However, if you did not do a good job of providing a reasonable (defensible) set of final options for your sponsor to consider, they may not trust your judgement the next time.

In day to day life, we really don't need that many choices. What is the big difference between all those different cellphone models, anyway? Will you use all of those features? Probably not. Just pick the blue one and be done with it - you will save at least an hour you could be spending eating ribs.

Or maybe you just want to sit down, unwind and have your vente half-caf machiatto with a caramel swirl on top.

Hey, not all choice is bad!

Our waiter in the Rendezvous was actually quite famous - the "grumpy waiter" was well known in the city, and I was glad to have been served by him. He passed away a few years later - a loss to the city, but I am sure the ribs are still just as good.

Good luck with your projects, and if you ever make it to Memphis, make sure to go to the Rendezvous restaurant. I recommend sweet and dry - and that may be the only choice you need to make!

Email: Gary Nelson, PMP

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