• Optimal Decision-Making and Doing More with Less Time

By Chipp Norcross

I read an eye-opening article about the mathematical challenge known as “The Marriage Problem.” In this challenge, a person, let’s call it a man, is faced with a conundrum of deciding which person, let’s call it a woman, to marry.  The man has a list of a finite number of women, and after he has met each one he must to decide whether to propose marriage to her or not. If he gets to the end of the list, he must marry the last woman no matter whether she was the best option or not.

If faced with this challenge, what do you do? According to mathematicians, the best way to decide is

1. Count the number of women on the list
2. Date the first 36.8% without proposing to any of them.
3. From that point forward, as soon as the man meets a woman who is a better match than any in the first group of 36.8%, he should immediately propose (well, maybe after a sufficient number of dates to not appear too desperate).

This formula comes from the mathematical constant “e”, which is the base of the natural logarithm and was discovered in the study of compound interest.  When following this rule, it does not guarantee an optimal outcome, but research has shown that the optimal selection will be make 1/e, or 36.8%, of the time.

We might not all be fond of choosing our mates this way (although it might be a good idea, since 50% of US marriages currently end in divorce).  But, there is a real lesson for business in this story.

It is fairly typical to find, at any hour of the day, a “brainstorming” meeting taking place in some corporate office.  The team often spends the whole hour coming up with ideas, and at the end they are left with a long list of ideas, but no clear idea of where to go next.  Scratching their collective heads, the team members resign themselves to scheduling another meeting and then they file out, grumbling about what a waste of time that was.  They have been to the end of their idea universe and have nothing to choose.

But, ideas are like a strong marriage; they are worked on and developed.  So what does the “Marriage Problem”  tell us? Here is an alternative approach to try out the next time you are trying to come up with a new idea. Instead of spending the whole hour thinking up ideas, apply the lesson of “The Marriage Problem”, with a twist. Start the hour thinking about alternative ideas, but after a little more than 20 minutes, go back and pick the best idea you’ve seen so far. Then, spend the rest of the hour developing that idea into a solution, looking at the plusses, solving for concerns and completing it with next steps. I can all but guarantee that after 20 minutes there is at least one good idea that the team has identified, but typically they get overlooked because the team is waiting for the “perfect idea” to emerge.  Don’t fall into the “perfect idea” trap.

By following the development method, you’ll not only walk out of the room with a good solution in hand, but also with a team that has a bounce in its step because it got something accomplished in the time they spent together. Trade in the griping about another wasted hour, for a meeting where they will marvel at their success.  This kind of feeling can be contagious! Create. Change.