Which is the best option?
What decision shall we take in order to reach our goal best?
In today’s world there is usually an abundance of different alternatives available – this might be a case of FOBO.
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FOBO stands for Fear of Better Options and is the inability to decide between different options when all of them are decent. On a personal level it is an emotional experience including one or several of these elements:
The Fear of Better Options can distort decision making processes also in business massively.
Imagine you are recruiting for an important position in your team. You shortlisted the most promising five candidates after having had decent interviews. They meet your defined requirements largely but not perfectly.
What to do?
You draft the contract for your number one on your shortlist – a promising lady coming from a different industry. But you do not send the proposal to her.
Another application came in which looks like the perfect fit and you hear from two colleagues that they know a person each whom they recommend for your team. So you decide to test these additional options, they could be a better fit.
One week later: the interview with the promising new applicant was a disaster, the recommended persons showed no interest.
Unfortunately, the promising lady from your shortlist is not available anymore, the other candidates also lost interest as they did not hear back from you for weeks.
Back to square one, the search starts again...
There are multiple goals and interests in business life to consider. We were often socialised to maximise results, to go for the best option. This can make extremely anxious, and the number of options tends to have increased as well. The internet and the mass introduction of sophisticated technology has accelerated the availability of information.
This might overwhelm us with choice and lead to overthinking – also in business.
The desire to maximise the outcome of a decision makes FOBO extremely relevant. The usual incompleteness of information in combination with additional (and potentially unknown) options stresses.
Consequently, decisions might not be taken in time – instead of realising the best option to reach a goal, the objective is totally missed. Instead of the best option, no option is chosen, or the decision happens too late – with costly effects!
This is not only relevant like in the recruiting example before – think about investment decisions, strategy creation, project management, etc.
The Fear of Better Options is highly relevant in today’s business world!
In order to consider ways to mitigate the effect of FOBO, let’s first investigate the background and conditions of it.
The background of the phenomenon, similar to other patterns and unconscious biases, lies in our past. In the course of evolution, the main target has been survival of the species. Maximisation decisions had a direct impact on the chance of survival. Consider the choice on where to spend your limited amount of energy for gathering food in an hostile environment. Waiting for a better option often made sense.
In today’s world, this pattern can actually harm our well-being and effectiveness – what are conditions for the Fear of Better Options?
Another important factor to consider is the decision space in the concrete situation. Our perception might tell us that the available number of options is stable whereas the real dynamics might be much more volatile. This is a significant consequence for the point in time where the decision process should be closed (which is usually earlier than perceived).
The tendency to over-analyse both the context as well as options might also significantly impact the decision context, in particular with a “maximiser” culture as valuable time might be lost.
The Fear of Better Options is a social anxiety impacting behaviour. It is amplified when a “maximising culture” is in place – the ambition to reach the highest possible result through rational decision-making.
If we connect the phenomenon of FOBO to the addressed points, we came to a couple of recommendations on how to reduce its effect in business (of course usable in private situations as well):
A certain amount of FOBO is both rational and useful as the choice for the first available option might not be the best. It is important to realise that after a certain point more options actually do not raise the chances to realise a goal but endanger reaching it.
Taking a decision consciously is usually better than doing nothing, and there will be possibilities to calibrate outcomes that turn out less desirable than planned.
When you do not decide, you even do not get started.
The term FOBO was coined by Patrick McGinnis, who introduced it together with the well-known term “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out) in a 2004 article for the Harvard Business School newspaper.
He was of the opinion that although people think that the number of options they have will only grows and will be almost endless, life isn’t that much predictable. Humanity also experiences economic crises, epidemics, and wars, which obviously limits the options in many ways.