Most of the interesting decisions we make are complex, with incomplete and ambiguous information. This is what makes judgement difficult and risky, particularly in high-consequence scenarios with existential threats and absolute failure as possibilities. What tough decision are you facing right now?
It seems sensible to me that the most direct route is the one that is going to be the one that is easiest and saves the most time. As a long-time climber, I've discovered that to be only partially true and sometimes flat-out untrue. This is where an unusual kind of cognitive bias and hidden risk lie.
I returned to lead climbing on rock recently in Oregon. Smith Rock is one of the most beautiful places on earth to climb and one of the areas that climbers pioneered modern sport climbing using anchors they drilled and bolted right into the rock. The older climbers used traditional anchors wedged into the numerous cracks splitting the spires.
The route I chose was an "easy" 40 meter high crack. The upper half of the crack was about 3" wide, which meant I could jam my left foot and left arm in the crack. At the half way point I put in the only anchor I was carrying large enough to fit into the crack. This meant that I had to climb much of the upper half of the route without anchoring the rope in. This was to say the least an uncomfortable prospect as a slip would mean a long fall.
The line was obvious, straight up and well-within my ability. It was just spooky. The only solution was to get hyper-focused and not lose my shit. I had just become unaccustomed to hanging it out like that. I got to the top without the hint of a close call. I was just uncomfortable.
This day was quite a bit different than climbing Mt. Whyte in Lake Louise on a route that is exactly the same technical difficulty. Mt. Whyte has a beautiful clean-looking ridge running right to the summit in a straight line. Years ago we took a crack at it and try as I might, I could only get up 20 feet of the 2000 foot high route. The climbing was dangerous and unprotected and so we retreated.
We returned to Whyte the following summer with mountain guide Karl Nagy who got us to the summit via the most convoluted set of traverses I've ever experienced. That way – the much less direct and much less obvious way – was faster, easier and safer than the obvious and way more difficult and dangerous direct route.
Decision making in the mountains can have more dire consequences than decision making in business but the ambiguities and complications are the same. I deal with the mechanics of decision making in my current book with Brett Wilson and John Francis. We provide some useful guidance on the subject and you can order yours here.