The Profundity of Rock, Paper, Scissors

By Linda Henman, Ph.D.

Unless you’re an only child, born to hermits who live in the remotest part of the world, you know the age-old wisdom of settling disputes with the “rock, paper, scissors” form of decision making. Theorists, academicians, and scholars have filled the shelves with lesser-known and less expedient forms of decision making, but this one reigns.

In less than five seconds—less than fifteen if you’re doing two out of three—a dyad or group can settle the question of who will make a critical decision. (I have seen executives groups take five months to do the same thing, with no greater payoff).  Sometimes these executives groups can’t decide who should decide; at other times, they think the group should decide but can’t
pick among the alternatives.

Who owns the decision? That’s the first question. Groups should make decisions only when the complexity of the decision demands everyone’s expertise, but not otherwise. “Buy in” from everyone isn’t usually realistic or necessary, and taking the time to get it can cost in lost opportunities.

Analysis paralysis cripples business. Does fear stand in the way? Usually, but spending more time ensuring 100% accuracy usually doesn’t offer a huge benefit. When you’re 80% ready, move.  Whatever advantage you gain by using the time and resources to gain the other 20% will usually not compensate for what you’ve lost.

Few decisions are innately right or wrong. Most offer varying degrees of plusses and minuses. Smart leaders know they have to move ideas to action, and having the buck stop with an individual, not a committee, offers the surest and fastest way to do that.

Rock, paper, scissors isn’t perfect, but it’s fast. And no one can argue with the outcome of a well-thought-out process that allows no form of corruption.


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