Farsighted – improving our decision making

Book Review: Farsighted:
How we make the decisions that matter most by Steven Johnson

Big decisions.  Long term decisions. Those with consequences.  Author Steven Johnson says we are wired for short term, not long-term, decisions.  Read this book for ideas on how to make better long term decisions.  Not quite as on target for COVID-19, as You’re IT! (last month’s review here), but still informative and captivating.  Here are my takeaways:

Big Decisions have three phases:

  • Mapping
  • Predicting
  • Deciding


George Washington’s biggest military failure was the loss of NYC to the British.  Why? He failed to guard well one obscure trail to high bluffs overlooking NYC.  That blind spot cost him dearly.  Lessons for us:

  • Leave no stone unturned

Be vigorous and rigorous in identifying “knowns” and tracking down “unknowns.”  Intentionally seek out related evidence.

  • Seek diverse views

Include diverse points of view.  Talk to people 1-on-1 to avoid “group think.”  Ask specifically, What do you know that others might not?  Ask why, 5 times.  Look for root causes.

  • Develop a full range of potential options

In one study, only 29% put more than one option on the table.  And only 15% added any options after their initial listing.  Intentionally seek out creative third and fourth options that work better.


When the U.S. found evidence that Bin Laden may be in a Pakistani compound, our military worked tirelessly for months to predict whether Bin Laden was actually likely to be in the compound.  They sought out other plausible explanations.  And when they determined the probability was high, they went to work on options, predicting likely consequences of the alternatives (invading Pakistani without permission).

  • Seek out diverse points of view

Again, diversity is the best defense against bad decisions.  Seek out all potential stakeholders.  Having a different point of view in the room makes discussions and decisions better.  Do simulations.  Ask people to role play different points of view.

  • Scenarios

Predicting is just that … making best guesses (with data when you can) … about what will happen.  Meg Wheatley suggests there are no unintended consequences … only those we didn’t think of.  Ask how scenarios might make things better, worse, or weird (unintended consequences).  Scenario planning recognizes that there are no perfect answers.  Amazon moves forward when they are 70% confident their idea will work.

  • Pre-mortems and Red Teams

This is another way to look at long term consequences.  What might Pakistan do after the U.S. invasion?  Might they cut off U.S. access to Afghanistan?  The U.S. developed an alternative route to improve the long term consequences of this alternative.  Keep working to improve options.


Three skills, they say, are needed to lead in chaos:

  • Greatest Good for Greatest Number

Decisions often come down to stakeholders and how meet the greatest number of needs … while minimizing negative impacts.  The author doesn’t address this in a detailed way; educators will recognize the importance of considering who benefits most and how to use decisions to improve racial equity.

  • Values that matter most

Charles Darwin made a detailed list of his reasons for and against getting married.  He followed a pattern first set out by Benjamin Franklin; first make a list of pros and cons … over several days; then weight them and strike out opposites of similar weights.  Here we are encouraged to be far more precise about what we value most.

  • Weigh the Risk Magnitude

Finally, we give each value a weight and then assign a 0-100% risk score.  Are we 70% likely to achieve our goal … or only 10%?  When we multiply the weight times the risk/probability we can see what factors might influence our decision the most.


The big take-away from this book is diversity.  Seek diversity in mapping the problem, predicting possible alternatives, and measuring the impact of your decisions.  Diversity, the author suggests is really our ability to project ourselves into other world and mind views.  He ends with the suggestion that literature, biography and historical fiction give us far more world views to consider than we would ever come up with on our own.

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Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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