"If you can dream it, you can do it." -- Walt Disney

We make countless little decisions throughout our lives. Most of these decisions are dealt with quickly and intuitively. Some people even argue that, in most cases, a snap decision yields better results than deliberate contemplation does.

But, our lives also include more significant, major decisions. These are the figurative fork-in-the-road choices that we understand are potentially pivotal, life-altering, and crucial. Making these decisions well is often the difference between success and suffering. It makes sense to think more deeply about them.

Some examples of these decisions from literature:

  • Should I marry the love of my youth, Heathcliff, or choose a wealthier, more conventional husband? (Wuthering Heights)

  • Should I keep my promise to a dying mother and adopt a young girl named Cossette? (Les Miserables)

  • Should I leave behind my life's work and everything I've built to join a bunch of philosophically like-minded people in a small commune in the rocky mountains, so we can watch the economy crumble together? (Atlas Shrugged)

Most people apply a grab bag of moral principles and practical concerns in making these kinds of decisions. A friend describes his process of making a big decision as about the same as any other decision, but "with a lot more useless worrying." Despite deliberating at length, people often don't consider non-obvious implications because they deliberate without sufficient imagination.

This problem of insufficient imagination limiting the scope of decision-making is even more common in business than in our personal lives or in literature. In the culture of management, there is no shortage of frameworks, analytical tools, and spreadsheet templates, which can stifle our dreams about the ramifications of decisions. A little playful pretend can go a long way in the search for potential profits.

The ability to put our imaginations to use in decision-making is something almost all of us are born with, but eventually, without enough practice, too many of us forget. We begin to make big decisions without even looking to our mind's eye for a vision of who we want to be and what future a decision promises for us.

Here are five creative approaches to decision-making I've enjoyed using in the past to conjure a little imagination in making better decisions.

The Ancient Child

One way to make better decisions is to distance ourselves from the passions of the moment. Steven Barnes' Ancient Child method does this by placing a decision within the context of a lifetime.

It may not differ a bit from Barnes' approach, but here's the way I implement the Ancient Child method:

  1. I spend some time thinking about why the decision is important, what it means, and what the ramifications could be.

  2. Then, I imagine myself as a young boy. And, I imagine my reaction upon hearing that I made the decision. Am I proud of that decision? Am I ashamed? Is it consistent with who I want to be?

  3. Then, after noting my view as a young boy, I imagine myself as an older man looking back on the life I've lived. What is my reaction upon remembering that I made the decision? Am I proud of the decision? Am I ashamed? Is it consistent with who I want to be?

The test for moving forward with one of these key decisions is that both the young boy and the elderly man approve of the decision. If either one of them is ashamed or thinks the decision was out of line with my life's story and theme, then I don't move forward.

This approach is helpful because influences like peer pressure, approval seeking, and temptation make sense in the immediate context of a decision, but often seem silly or immoral in a larger context. Imagination is an effective way to take in the big picture.

10/10/10 Method

Suzy Welch's 10/10/10 method is similar to the Ancient Child approach, but the Ancient Child is more focused on a kind of moral perspective of what a good decision is over a lifetime while the 10/10/10 method helps me to focus more on functional outcomes over time. Both help use the power of the mind's eye to consider the ramifications of decisions over the years. Here's Fast Company's Chip and Dan Heath summarizing the process:

"To use 10/10/10, we think about our decisions on three different time frames:

  1. How will we feel about it 10 minutes from now?

  2. How about 10 months from now?

  3. How about 10 years from now?"

Chip and Dan go on to provide a useful explanation of why the process is effective:

"The three time frames provide an elegant way of forcing us to get some distance on our decisions.

10/10/10 helps to level the emotional playing field. What we’re feeling now is intense and sharp, while the future feels fuzzier. That discrepancy gives the present too much power, because our present emotions are always in the spotlight. 10/10/10 forces us to shift our spotlights, asking us to imagine a moment 10 months into the future with the same "freshness" that we feel in the present.

That shift can help us to keep our short-term emotions in perspective. It’s not that we should ignore our short-term emotions; often they are telling us something useful about what we want in a situation. But we should not let them be the boss of us."

One concern I have with the 10/10/10 method is that it may overemphasize prediction about future outcomes, something that is useful, but not always reliable. Not many of us have a crystal ball. It is easier to understand and apply moral principles we want to define us over time, but much more difficult to conjure a view of the future. This bias can be corrected by spending a little more time focusing on what is known in the here and now. One way to do that is through Robert Dilts' Disney Method, described, below.

Robert Dilts' Disney Method

The Disney Method uses imagination to evaluate decisions. This process is a model of Walt Disney's thinking process created by Robert Dilts, a master practitioner of Neuro Linguistic Programming. Disney tended to think as three separate personalities -- he was first a dreamer, then a realist, and, finally, a critic. If you have ever been to the "Happiest Place on Earth" with a young child, you'll know it is hard to argue with Disney's results.

There are numerous different ways of implementing this approach. Here's the way I do it:

  1. I pretend I'm occupying Walt Disney's body. I walk into his office where three sets of close advisors are waiting for me in three separate rooms.

  2. As I walk into the first room, I am greeted by three to five creative types. These are brilliant, big dreamers. One is a Google 10xer whose YouTube videos I watch. Another is a consultant I have been a fan of for years. The other three are fictional embodiments of my thinking. I ask each of them for feedback, and we dream big, playing a game of "yes, and...," accepting everything and adding to the vision until I'm very, very excited about how this decision can work.

  3. As I walk into the second room, I am greeted by three to five get-it-done people. One is a technical whiz, another is a financial whiz, and a third is a jack-of-all-trades. We work together planning out the specifics of what a good outcome after a decision would entail.

  4. As I walk into the third room, I'm greeted by two to three critics. These are people who are naysayers. I'm not looking to kill the approach, but I ask them what objections they have. And, I listen. I expect there will be problems to solve and I want to hear from the critics so I can address them later. I don't argue with them, yet, but I listen for a dealbreaker. If I don't hear one, I think I've decided on a good approach and I know I've thought things through.

This approach has the advantage of not only leading to a decision but, with the help of the imaginary critics, also helping me understand the next few decisions that have to be made down the line to get to a satisfactory outcome.

Compare Disney's Strategy to de Bono's Six Thinking Hats Approach.

Google Design Thinking

Design thinking helps flesh out a problem, helping to make clear multiple decisions that need to be made and why they are important to success.

Here's how I apply Design Thinking:

  1. What do I want to achieve with the decision I feel I have to make? What's the end goal?

  2. Before I make a decision, I interview people who have been similarly situated and who have made similar decisions after encountering similar problems.

  3. I make a list of all the problems I learned about from talking with real people, their problematic consequences, and then I group them by theme.

  4. For each of the thematically-grouped problems or concerns, I brainstorm additional steps, actions, or decisions down the road that could solve or greatly improve these specific concerns arising from real world complications of the decision. This is the 10x or moonshot imagination phase in which I deliberately ignore assumed limitations. I add a "but, also" factor in which each great idea is supplemented by an even more ambitious great idea for addressing concerns with the decision.

  5. I sketch out a plan for proceeding with a more critical eye to what is possible given real-world constraints, but I strive to include in the plan as much of the 10x solutions as possible.

  6. Can I accept the plan? Is it worth it? How do I feel about the effort needed to undertake it?

Much of the time, the reason why decisions are difficult is because the decision-maker doesn't have enough information to proceed with confidence.

Design thinking is a great way to obtain just the information you need to proceed and amplify its utility with imagination and critical thinking.

The way I apply it to decision making, Design Thinking has another benefit -- it breaks down the illusion that single decisions or actions are somehow isolated. In reality, decisions bring consequences, which require more decisions. In helping to make one decision, Design Thinking helps form a path through several others, or it helps avoid such a path.

The biggest drawback to applying Design Thinking is that the framework requires substantial time and other resources.

What Would Jesus Christ Do?

This final tool for using imagination in decision-making is the most simple, direct, elegant, and powerful. There are only three steps:

  1. I think of a person whose character is impeccable and whose moral principles I've grown familiar with from thought and discussion.

  2. Then, given any question or proposed action, I simply ask myself: What would the person in Step #1, above, do in this circumstance.

  3. Optionally, I dictate or write out my thoughts on why the person would make that decision given their philosophy and who they are.

The most obvious historical person, if you will, in my mind is Jesus Christ. He has been the moral fountainhead of civilization for two millennia, and his influence is felt not only on Christians, but on secular ethicists and countless institutions by derivation. But, the person could be virtually anyone who meets this very high standard in a person's mind, including a very philosophically well-developed fictional character like Ayn Rand's John Galt or a business leader with a clear, fixed philosophy like Jack Welch.

Christian ethics aren't necessarily always simple to apply to difficult scenarios and John Galt's Objectivist ethics can be even harder to understand. But, for illustrative purposes, let's continue with the example of Jesus Christ. If I were to apply all the potential rules and reasoning I've heard as a Christian and someone who has read into the world of Christianity through historical, philosophical works and popular interpretations, I'd have to spend days or weeks trying to figure out how to apply the concerns to a difficult, close case. But, if I simply ask myself, "What would Jesus Christ do?" my subconscious integrates all of that understanding and provides an answer.

I like to think our minds have something very roughly analogous to a subconscious method for integrating what we know about other people and anticipating their behavior and reactions. When someone acts outside our expectations -- even when it's just something subtly off in their demeanor -- we often get a sense that something is wrong, but we don't always know what it is. In more violent times, this could save our lives, but here we are using it as a mental shortcut, a way to fit all sorts of considerations into an idea of a person we can use quickly and easily.

When I ask myself, "Would Jesus Christ do this?," I'm able to get at least a feeling of how to answer my question almost immediately.

Sometimes, I want to think about the situation further, and for that purpose, I add the optional step of dictating or writing down my reasoning. But, the conclusion should probably come first and the justification second. The goal here is to let the subconscious mind do the heavy lifting here.

Conclusion

Imagination allows us to move beyond immediate concerns and to explore the implications of decisions, what we want, and who we want to be. I still make most decisions quickly and decisively, but the five methods above have helped me think more deeply about big, crucial decisions.