Complex Decision-Making 101


See yourself and the world more clearly.

Commit to what you want to experience. 

Execute powerful decisions.

Face uncertainty with confidence.

Make your impact, with more ease and fun.

My family and I are moving next year.

Was it an easy decision? In some ways yes, and in other ways, no. We’d be leaving our familiar community and friends, a region of the country with amazing cost-of-living, and proximity to a city that offered so many activities – sports, theater, music, arts – that I looked forward to sharing with our son.

Reflecting on my path through medical school and residency, I realized I hadn’t fully taken advantage of experiencing each of the locations I had lived in. I had finally reached a stage in life that I was ready to do this…but the COVID-19 pandemic had struck, delaying most socialization and opportunities, and we were thinking of moving.

Most importantly, we’d no longer be within driving distance to our parents and extended families.

You may have had to make a similar decision in the past, or maybe you’re facing one now. It may be a decision that you can’t immediately take back if you change your mind, or one where you see there’s a lot at stake.


Complexity Results in Uncertainty – This is Okay

These types of decisions – the ones that have us staying up late or posting anonymously on social media (hoping for some miraculous piece of advice), or where family and friends observe us saying the same thing week after week, “I don’t know what to do….” “I don’t know what’s best…” – are challenging not just because of the stakes we perceive, but because of the fact that there are complex considerations and elements of uncertainty involved.

Let’s pause and consider that for a moment. It’s important to do this because we must accept that uncertainty will inevitably be a part of a complex problem, and in many ways it’s something we can’t control.

However, when it comes to complex decision-making, one of the tendencies I’ve noticed in people is the persistent effort to try to anticipate and control for every potentiality.

The challenge in this is that we cannot know everything that will happen independent of us, and the contributions we make to a complex situation will undoubtedly have some unknown consequences as well. 

So much energy and time is wasted on trying to predict and control the future.


If you’re making a complex decision, one of the aspects of the approach then will be to simply determine:

  1. What is it the deeper want or need that you have as you resolve the problem (or as you lean into the opportunity?) [Pick your top 1-3 priorities.]
  2. What is it that you really want to avoid? [Pick your top 1-3 priorities.]
  3. What is within your control?

Another aspect that is not so much an approach, but rather a skill to develop, is the ability to handle uncertainty when making a complex decision. With my clients, I teach numerous strategies on how to do this effectively. I practiced processing uncertainty as I left my employed clinical position; as I considered the choices related to COVID-19, and long-term impact of the pandemic; and as I made my decision about moving across the country. The self-confidence gained through this skill is priceless when it comes to making complex decisions.

The Impact of Uncertainty

Perceived uncertainties will often activate our fight-or-flight response, creating confusion, fear, worry or overwhelm to keep us safe.

Let’s look at the emotion of confusion specifically, because this feeling is notorious for getting us stuck and by itself doesn’t inherently help. There are some things to consider as you look at the emotion of confusion.


Confusion – Some Remedies

First, notice that confusion is a surface-level emotion. If you really explore this more deeply, you’ll notice that there is another emotion underlying it. This emotion is commonly fear (worry about a perceived immediate threat) or some version of it – doubt or anxiety for example. Being able to identify these deeper emotions helps cue you to the deeper concern, and potential dangers, you are trying to address.

Also, notice that feeling confused is not a problem in itself. Allowing yourself to act from a place of confusion, however, can create undesired results – or lack of them. In this case, shifting your mindset to one that is more productive is helpful.

Third, another approach to dealing with confusion could be to take action in order to gather data.

Each major decision we have is actually a multitude of smaller decisions. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the size of the problem in front of us, if we can identify the next most important decision we need to make, and then to take action toward that, we can gather real information and decide what works or doesn’t work. We can see, for real, whether we are heading to where we want to be.

The lesson here lies in complexity again – in complex situations, it is impossible to create a master plan, to execute it, and to think that with things will go a certain way. Trying to create a refined, specific blueprint is a waste of energy, because often the feedback you get from the world as you execute your plan will change your situation and require a reassessment anyway.

What does this mean then?

  1. Start by simply identifying the outcomes you absolutely want to create, as well as those that you absolutely want to avoid.
  2. Having considered your situation and the facts available, and from experience, determine a reasonable general path to creating your result.
  3. Then, identify the next 1-3 steps you must take.
  4. Execute, gather data, and then reassess to refine your plan.

Interested in powerful decision-making? More to come later this week….

P.S. If you want me to help guide you through a high-stakes decision, e-mail me at to let me know what’s going on for you. We’ll schedule a call to chat and talk about how my 1-month decision-making intensive can help you make a thoughtful, confident decision about that major thing you are working on, as well teach you the skill of mastering uncertainty. You can apply what you learn to all your future decisions.


  1. Zimmerman, B., Lindberg, C., & Plsek, P. E. (2001).Edgeware: Insights from complexity science for health care leaders. Irving, TX: VHA.
  2. Shane Parrish offers various his articles on decision-making through his blog
  3. A contact introduced me to the concept of simple, complicated and complex decisions in context of the Cynefin framework — check out some intro information here — Wikipedia article on Cynefin Framework

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