top of page

Decision Quality

Deeply Misunderstood,

Greatly Needed

Ben Cattaneo


“I could see no possible, conceivable way those children could survive that journey.”

This is what Dr Richard Harris, the anaesthesiologist and cave diver who played a crucial role in the rescue of the Wild Boars football team from the Tham Luang Cave in Thailand in 2018, told me when I spoke to him on my podcast, All Things Risk. He was talking about the proposed plan to anesthetise the team members (aged 11-16 at the time) and bring them out one by one while unconscious under the effects of ketamine.

“I still look back and am incredulous it worked.”

Even though the world was gripped, no one, apart from the core rescue team knew that this option was even being contemplated.

“Ultimately, it was my decision” he states.  Other options were considered, including pumping water out of the cave, teaching the boys how to dive, or finding a way to keep them alive during the fast-approaching three-month-long monsoon season. 


“I examined all these plans and I realised they were all completely hopeless,” he continued. 


The plan went ahead and thankfully, it worked. The Wild Boars were rescued because not only of the work of Dr Harris but also that of an incredible team. The world was gripped and ultimately, it rejoiced. Their rescue made global headlines, surpassing France’s triumph in the 2018 Men’s World Cup final.


The fact that the plan to anesthetise the children worked is often lauded as proof that it was a great decision. However, such claims reveal a deep misunderstanding of what quality decision-making is all about.

We often judge the quality of a decision based on the outcome. If the decision goes our way, we often conclude it was a “good” decision and if not, we conclude the opposite. In behavioural science, this is called “outcome bias” and in the game of poker, it’s called “resulting.” Annie Duke, another podcast guest of mine, a former world poker champion and decision scientist, describes this as the “single biggest problem in decision-making”. In professional poker, knowing when you played the right hand and lost via “bad luck,” or the wrong one and won via “dumb luck,” is the difference between a successful career or career suicide.

Outside of this poker context, however, we see “resulting” all the time, especially in sports and work. We conclude for instance, that an in-match decision which didn’t work out is proof of a coach’s incompetence, or that a managing director who just so happens to be presiding over a business unit during a short-term spike in demand is somehow a genius. Consequently, our sports teams, organisations or we as individuals suffer, needlessly. Often, we don’t even notice when we are doing this.

A failure to understand decision quality is inadequate for the challenges we increasingly face. In my experience, professionals in emergency management tend to understand it far better than those in managerial or leadership positions. In fact, they could teach a thing or two to many whose job it is to make difficult organisational decisions.

Nonetheless, we could all get better at decision-making. Uncertainty and complexity are features of our time. In addition, the ways in which our brains work mean we often are prone to numerous thinking errors. While most of us will not have to make the type of decision Dr Harris had to make, we can all get better at the practice of decision-making.

As a start, it’s helpful to understand what a good decision looks like. Decision-making is something very seldom taught at universities or business schools. It’s something we think we know how to do well, but the reality is often different.

I use the simple moniker “FOCUS” to help people think through what a quality decision looks like. This stands for:

Framing – A quality decision is framed well, meaning it aligns with one’s values, has clear objectives and the right amount of time and energy dedicated to it. Contrary to a common myth, the vast majority of decisions we make need to be made quickly. Good framing spots this and other traps.

Options – A quality decision has the right number of options – not too many, not too few.

Cognitive biases (and other human factors) – Quality decisions incorporate forms of psychological safety and techniques to account for and address cognitive biases that can lead to errors in judgment. It also accounts for physical and emotional states.

Uncertainty – No outcome is certain and a quality decision incorporates probabilistic thinking.

However, knowing is never enough. Quality decision-making is a practice, not a process or set of tools.

We know that the decision to anaesthetize the Wild Boars football team was a quality decision not because of the outcome but because regardless of it. Faced with the same information, Dr Harris would have made exactly the same decision, even if the plan had failed. He says: “I decided to proceed on this very binary decision that whilst I thought the children wouldn’t survive, based on what we were proposing, the alternative actually seemed worse, to leave them to die this slow death rather than have them die under anaesthetic which at least from their perspective would be a death that they wouldn’t know anything about.”

This is what quality decision-making looks like in practice. It is far from easy, and it is deeply misunderstood. It requires humility, curiosity, and courage. Increasingly, however, each of us – and the world - needs far more of it.

About the Author

Ben Cattaneo is the Founder of The Decision-Making Studio, a consultancy that helps individuals and organisations make quality decisions under uncertainty.


He is also co-author of the book Decision-Making in The Polycrisis Era and hosts The All Things Risk Podcast. He has over two decades of experience in strategic decision-making, strategy, geopolitical risk, and sustainability.

Read More

bottom of page