(I Can’t Get No) Satisfice-tion?

By Tanya Zwahlen

As past blog posts suggest, I have a love of portmanteaus. Few are as useful as this one from the world of behavioral economics and management science: “satisficing.” A combination of the words “satisfying” and “sufficing,” satisficing is a decision-making strategy or mental shortcut that uses the process of searching through the available alternatives until an acceptability threshold is met. That may sound complicated, but everyone who has made a decision where there are many possible choices has satisficed before.

Say you want to buy a new pair of shoes.  You may have some general constraints: the shoes need to be comfortable, attractive and affordable. But there is a good chance these constraints will still leave you with hundreds if not thousands of shoes to consider. There is no way to consider each and every option, especially as new ones emerge daily. Instead, you will likely satisfice and select a pair of shoes that meets an acceptable threshold of comfort, appearance and price without spending too much time on the matter. In a sense, satisficing is about settling on an option that is “good enough.”

At Highland Planning of course we’re usually not hired to buy shoes. Getting to “good enough” when the decision will impact hundreds, thousands or even millions of people is no small task. Some decisions necessitate picking winners and losers and satisficing too soon in these circumstances can easily lead to the perception that the decision was a “done deal” or that it disregards the needs of the community.

It comes back to process. In the planning world, we never get to a hugs-and-high-fives consensus. But a process that feels fair and meaningful is attainable. There’s no formula (three public forums + six steering committee meetings + one six-month long survey = satisfice-tion!). Instead, the process of reaching a state of satisfice-tion can entail answering a series of questions: Have we engaged all the relevant stakeholders? Did they have all the information needed to help make the decision?  Did we use the right tools to engage those who will be impacted?

Some people will remain unhappy with the decision, but with enough outreach, education and sincere listening, your project can have a satisfice-tory conclusion.

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