Too Many Options?

Too Many ChoicesI have to share with you something that happened to me the other night. I’m at a restaurant having dinner with a colleague. We finally get seated, and the host hands us each a menu. Well, not exactly a menu, it’s closer to an encyclopedia. The options seem endless. We both struggle for a while, but eventually make our final choices. Here’s the odd thing: we each end up not being satisfied with what we finally selected. And it was a pricey place.

You probably can identify with experiences like this. Isn’t it annoying?

There are always choices—of food, toys, hotels, cars, etc. The list goes on ad infinitum. Prevailing wisdom is that the more options, the greater the likelihood of being satisfied. How many different varieties of coffee drinks can you get? Baristas will tell you “happiness is in your choices.” After all, it seems to work for Starbucks, doesn’t it?

Walmart carries approximately 100,000 products. Amazon offers tens of millions of options. The whole world seems to be exalting in the number of choices we get these days. Isn’t it great? It certainly seems to be the rage. But there’s another side to this movement—a dark side. Having too many choices makes many people uncomfortable. In my own case … well, it just about drives me crazy.

Professor Sheena Iyengar at Columbia University has studied how people deal with more choices in business situations. The results aren’t pretty—whether it’s from the perspective of the seller or the buyer. To summarize the results of one such study: when people were offered different numbers of jams to choose from on a grocery store shelf, sales were higher when there were fewer options. Specifically, when the store displayed 24 types of jam, ~ 3 percent of customers selected and bought a product. When offered only 6 choices, 30 percent ended up purchasing.

Are there other applications of this?

  • Let’s say you’re a member of a problem solving group or a decision making committee. Is it really necessary to identify every single available option? It might make sense to reduce the number of choices as early as possible, or at least when it becomes apparent that the likely best selection is only one of a relatively small number.
  • It’s the same with business models, or lists of values, or marketing plans, or guiding principles, or focusing strategies. At some level of complexity or sheer number of factors, we start dealing with the dreaded Law of Diminishing Returns. There comes a point when the list loses its meaning; i.e., if our company claims to focus on 150 values, in effect it doesn’t focus on any.
  • How about laws and rules? There is a level of legislation where over-codification of requirements threatens the central theme of the initial effort. Once we reach that level—for example, a large list of things people are prohibited from doing—those people begin to assume they can do anything that is not on the prohibited list.
  • One last application. We can’t keep adding to people’s to-do lists. The concept of time is a fixed-sum concept. If it will take an extra hour to do a new task every day, that one hour will have to come from somewhere. Worse yet, everything can’t be the top priority. The person who tries to emphasize everything, emphasizes nothing. In this case, there is only one fix: when new responsibilities are added to someone’s workload, something else must be removed.

Remember: the more options, the less comfortable we are with making any choice at all.

About the author

Dr. Dick Ruhe is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies.

5 thoughts on “Too Many Options?

  1. Kellogg stocks the breakfast food aisle in your local supermarket. Whenever they want to pump up the sales of their mainstays (Corn Flake, Rice Krispies, Raisin Bran), they add new, different, and confusing items to the shelves all around their basic brands. The shopper is confused and settles on grabbing something they know from the shelf. Brilliant marketing ploy!

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