Benjamin Franklin offered famous advice on decision-making to his scientific colleague, Joseph Priestley. His counsel was take a sheet of paper, divide it into two columns, and write down all the advantages of a certain path of action in one column and the disadvantages in the other. Then, by "cancelling out" items in one column with items in the other, assess which column is weightier.
Simple but powerful, Franklin's Moral Algebra continues to be relevant today, when critical business and IT decisions must be made under conditions of great uncertainty and time pressure. Research has shown that such methods reliably produce better decisions than ordinary, unstructured deliberation. The basic principles of Franklin's Moral Algebra, combined with today's decision-mapping software, can improve and accelerate organization decisions.
We must also acknowledge that in its classic form, Franklin's advice can't do justice to many business decisions. Most obviously, the Moral Algebra frames the problem as whether to undertake a particular action. But most decisions are not yes/no or go/no go. Rather, most decisions involve choosing from a range of possible actions.
For example, in a hiring situation, the decision problem is not likely to be whether or not to hire Jones but, rather, which of Jones, Jiminez or Jagonski to hire? Complicating matters further, the options may form a kind of hierarchy. At one level, the decision is whether or not to hire an accountant or a tax lawyer. At the next level, if an accountant is to be hired, which one?
Another problem is that the method focuses on only one part of the decision problem, which is how to do the overall "weighing up" of the various considerations. But in business decisions, much of the work goes into determining the validity or strength of those considerations in the first place. A claimed advantage of hiring a tax lawyer is that she can manage certain difficult issues having to do with complex tax structures. But is this really true? Perhaps the issues are too complex for any one lawyer, and external advice would have to be obtained anyway.
Recognizing that we need something more than a simple pro/con approach, many textbooks, professors and consultants will prescribe moving to some technical, usually quantitative methodology, such as multi-attribute utility theory or decision analysis. These certainly have their uses, but the reality is that most decision makers do not use these technical methods for the bulk of their decisions-even if they were taught how to use them in business school. And they are not just being lazy. Often, these sorts of complex analytical tools just don't get a grip on the distinctive texture of business decisions. Real problems often can't be reduced to numbers, algorithms and decision rules.