How can we draw the line between what is inside and what is outside the scope of our decisions? Eyas Raddad, Senior Advisor and Decision Scientist at Eli Lilly and Company, joins your host, Executive Director of the Alliance for Decision Education, Dr. Joe Sweeney, to talk about the importance of building the right frames for our decisions, the common attributes of the very best decision scientists in the field, and the decision skills that you can bring to the table at work to support your team’s decision-making. Finally, Eyas leaves us with a valuable lesson on how to distinguish advice from our friends that simply feels good to us, from advice that truly helps us.
This description has been updated since its original publishing date on February 24, 2021.
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Eyas is a seasoned drug discovery and development researcher, strategist and innovator. Since he joined Eli Lilly and Company in 2001, he has applied sophisticated data analytics and strategic frameworks to improve decision-making in the drug discovery and development process. In 2017, Eyas established and led the Research Decision Analytics function in Lilly Research Laboratories, with a mission that includes portfolio management, decision consulting and decision education for early research. A native of Jordan, Eyas holds a BS in Pharmacy (University of Jordan; 1997), and a PhD in Pharmaceutics (University of Georgia; 2001). Eyas also completed an MBA from MIT-Sloan School of Management in 2013.
Joe: I’m just going to start right off with the curiosity of mine, which is, how did your interest in this area in decision skills and decision analytics begin?
Eyas: Honestly, it’s something I practically stumbled upon, but I developed a passion for it that is really lifelong. I still remember the situation that got me exposed to decision analysis and decision quality when I was serving as a scientist on one of the many drug development teams at Lilly and I was supporting that as a scientist, just like everyone else on the team. And I noticed the team really going into a whirlwind of discussions about tradeoffs to make a certain decision, a go or no-go decision at the time, and how to structure it. And the tradeoffs were known in a sense. We knew what the criteria were, it’s just that we did not know how to balance them together to understand what makes a good drug versus not. So I went to consult with my decision science colleagues, Jay Andersen and Jim Felli, at the time, who I still cherish my relationship with as teachers and good friends. And they kind of just walked me through how I could structure such an opportunity and help the team come up with a more efficient way to come to that decision. And at that time I was at awe that we could actually do this, even with the complexity that the team was going through. From that time on, I got more and more interested in it and got trained in decision consulting. And I did a stint in decision science to refine my skill sets and then practice and ever since I’ve been using these skill sets in every single situation and position that I have served.
Joe: Well, that’s a great intro! And there’s so much there to unpack. For a lot of our audience, the introduction to decision skills [and] decision analysis is completely new and outside of what they do and their day-to-day work. So I’ve got a bunch of questions here. The first is what do you mean by decision analysis?
Eyas: That’s a great question, Joe. And honestly, sometimes I’m not sure it’s the best way to refer to what we do as professionals. So to a large degree, I see decision analysts or decision scientists as experts who understand how to reduce complexity into structures, where the structures become the way that you can organize information and [identify] knowledge holistically important for the decision, where nothing more is needed to be considered. In a sense, defining the boundary between what is important to consider versus what is not, which is usually what really makes decisions is very complicated.
So that’s one end and the other end is trying to understand the biases that people bring to the decisions and protect the quality of the decisions from those biases. Because those biases in most cases, are not really intentional. They’re kind of implicit biases that people have. It’s honestly innate biologically and perhaps have been very useful to us as a species evolutionarily. However, right now they could very much derail the quality of decisions that we make. So a decision analyst is someone who can protect the decision from the worst enemies of such a decision and then organize information so that decision makers are very much comfortable with the best course of action, even with the most complex and most anxiety-provoking decisions in their organizations or their lives.
Joe: I appreciate it. Let me see if I can say it back and if I got it right. So it sounds like you’re saying whether you call the person a decision analyst or a decision scientist, one of the big values that they bring to a decision-making process is they help put boundaries around the decision to say what’s in and what’s out. That’s one way of protecting your decision. Another way is to help identify and resist cognitive biases. And the last is to organize the information to structure the decisions. Just going back for a second, one of the things you mentioned was this idea that there are biases and for a lot of our listeners, the term bias usually comes up in their life when they’re thinking about things around race, politics, equity issues, or social justice. That’s the way the term is often used, but it sounds like you’re referring to something different, which I think you are. Could you talk about it more and what you mean?
Eyas: Yeah, I appreciate that distinction, because you’re right. Actually that reminds me of a time when I gave a lecture with a couple of colleagues on biases and decision-making and one of the questions was about racial bias and biases relating to diversity in general. So although that one actually is a type of bias that definitely is at play in decision-making, the biases that I’m referring to are many, what I would call automatic thinking that does not go to the frontal cortex. It does not really become part of our conscious thinking. And our brain is trained to process them in a certain way for efficiency, because our brain is trying to get to an estimate very efficiently so that doesn’t really overburden the frontal cortex.
An example of one of those biases is the recency bias or availability bias. So, for example, if you’re driving today and you saw an accident in front of you and it was a horrifying accident, someone may have gotten injured or something like that, for the rest of your drive, you’re probably driving slower. You’re driving more carefully. Well, what really changed about the risk of having an accident before you saw that event or didn’t? Probably nothing. The condition of the streets is still the same. The traffic level is probably still the same. It doesn’t really justify a change in your behavior, per se, unless your behavior before was quite reckless and you just got a reminder. But in general, if you’re consciously thinking about it, the chance of you having an accident didn’t change. But your brain plays a trick on you. When you see that accident, it actually – especially if it is something that provokes an emotion that is strong – tells you this is important and you need to protect yourself and thus it can overestimate the chance of an accident and thus affect your decisions, how you drive, for example. This is a clear example of recency bias.
Joe: Yeah. I think that’s an incredibly clear one. Sometimes I find it’s the translation or transferability from one domain of our life to another that’s the most challenging about the subject area for people. So I thought that was a really good explanation and example of recency or availability bias. How would that maybe show up in the decision that you would help structure at work?
Eyas: Great question. I actually, the reason I mentioned this specific bias is because I recently experienced it. Not myself, but with the colleagues I’m working with. I received a communication from leaders and a couple of functions that work in the research side of Lilly, the early discovery side. And they were responding to a question that came from senior leadership within the Lilly research organization. And the question was: are we having more than usual attrition in a certain therapeutic area and a specific phase? The reason that question was asked is because there were two projects within a span of maybe two or three months that faced a ‘kill decision.’ We call it ‘kill decision’ for programs, meaning we stop basic activities. And that’s based on data that may suggest the drug in development is not working, or may be more toxic than we had hoped for, or something like that.
So to me, I took it initially and said, definitely we need to look at the data. However, there may be a recency bias here at play. So we looked at the data and the data really was starkly suggestive of no difference whatsoever between that therapeutic area’s attrition rates and any other therapeutic area or even benchmarked against external data from other companies that we collected.
So the answer quantitatively was: No, we do not have any evidence that the attrition rate is different. I mean, there’s always a possibility that the attrition rate is changing right now and we’re just seeing the initial inclinations of it. So the recommendation I gave as a decision scientist is: number one, be clear that we’re not seeing something systemically alarming yet. However, we should look qualitatively at the stories of those projects that failed and start to understand what could be the reasons and are these reasons avoidable? Can we do something that could improve the attrition rate generally? And that is always a good thing to do, right? I mean, you don’t have to really wait for a disaster to happen. You can always really try to improve the chances of success of your projects.
Joe: I think that’s a great point. We were talking with Ralph Keeney, not too long ago, who has been focusing attention on the idea of looking for opportunities to make decisions to improve your wellbeing or the outcomes of your organization, as opposed to waiting for decisions that feel like problems, just to show up.
So that’s a nice tie-in connection there. Can I go back for a second though, to something else you said? You mentioned protecting the decision space or the organization from biases and from what was in the decision versus what’s not in the decision. I don’t know if you remember talking about that. What did you mean there that there are things that you’re trying to show the edge of or keep a boundary around?
Eyas: Yeah. I mean, every situation that you’re in, if you’re trying to make a decision, basically, you’re saying, how should I allocate my resources, my time, my money, my relationship, et cetera, everything that you have control over? As you think through all of that, you are actually making another decision, usually subconsciously about how you’re thinking about the situation, [about] what you are focusing on versus things that are not materially important for this decision. This, in my mind, I noticed the most when I tried to counsel friends around their personal decisions. Just recently I was counseling one of my mentees, who is graduating soon and looking for different opportunities to [pursue] and actually different industries to [pursue]. The first question she asked me was: ‘I want to decide how to handle one opportunity or one interview for a sales job.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to help you with that. But you know what? I’m not sure that’s the right question to even ask. Maybe the right question was: based on my strengths, where could my abilities be most likely to give me success in my career and satisfaction? What channel industry should I be seeking? And within that industry, what kinds of roles should I be seeking?’ That question was not asked. So I helped that individual reframe their mindset and focus on a different part of this space of possibilities of choices rather than the first one that was asked. So a decision scientist is usually skilled at hearing the question and deconstructing the question to the basic fundamental needs that the decision maker has.
And sometimes that needs some additional discovery: questioning to understand really where the decision maker is coming from and then focusing on really what fundamentally is important rather than what superficially seems important to the decision maker.
Joe: So I find this topic around reframing to be absolutely fascinating and a challenging intersection of what’s intuition, what’s wisdom of practice, and what’s actually like a craft or science, a skill that we can actually develop? So, I remember a conversation once with a mentor, I think it was my dissertation chair, who said you can’t even walk down a beach and pick up pebbles without a theory. You’re always operating with the frame or the theory because you’re using some criteria to decide which pebbles to pick up and which ones not to. It’s always happening. And every time that I helped someone reframe a decision, I’m struck by how quickly a reframing occurs to the person who’s on the outside of the problem. You or me can come up with a different frame. But I’m curious about a place where I think my skill is low, which is that I often stop at the first resonating reframing that I come up with, so a reframing that feels right to me. How do you experience reframing when you do it? Do you feel like there is a clear, better frame? Do you feel like there’s like some nugget you’re getting at? Do you generate a series of alternatives? Have you not really thought about it before? Like what’s going on in your head when you try to reframe with someone or for yourself?
Eyas: Reframing, to add to what you’ve mentioned, is probably the single most important and impactful parts of the art of decision analysis or decision consulting if you’re helping someone make better decisions. The reason is: a flaw in the frame, regardless of what else you do, is going to definitely produce a low quality decision, because everything else maps to that frame. It had this space of alternatives. You are choosing how you measure the goodness of an alternative. Everything else maps to that frame. By the way, this part of a decision analyst training is probably what distinguishes the decision analysts or scientists most from any other modeler, data scientist, or something like that, people who are good with data, good with statistics, good with math, with programming that allows you to do the right calculations behind the scene, because it is really more of an art.
It is less so a science. It is more of an art. It takes someone who is very skilled at listening to reframe what they hear and play back to the decision maker until they are sure that they are hearing the full scope of what is important, and then draw that line where that scope is and again confirm that with the decision-maker. We typically do that in a listening session, we call it a “scoping session” or “framing session,” where we just listen to the decision maker. We ask a lot of questions just to kind of probe our understanding first and ask questions behind the questions.
If someone says, we need to reach the market really fast, for example, we ask the question, why is that important? And then they will say, well, it’s obvious, if you reach the market close sooner, that means we have a better ability to beat a competitor. Well, why is that important? Because if you beat the competitor, you might have a bigger market share. And why is that important? Because that’s what gets you the most revenue. Well, then we uncovered that. Although speed seemingly was a decision criteria, it’s really important only because it contributes to revenue. That’s just an example of this series of questions that we go through, which is really is probably one of the most fulfilling to decision scientists and to decision-makers. I would say something that is kind of funny in my career, I noticed a lot of people come back and ask me questions and want me to be in teams. If you ask them why, they say a lot of things, but honestly, it’s very difficult for them to pinpoint. Very few people will recognize that the framing skillsets is really what distinguishes a good counsel when it comes to decision-making.
Joe: Yeah, that’s really fascinating. As you’re talking about it, I was trying to sketch and take notes on what you’re saying. One of the sketches that came up for me was just, someone gives you a frame and sometimes you zoom up or zoom out. So you’re abstracting the level to get a different frame. Sometimes you’re zooming in, getting more precise on the thing that they’re trying to decide on. And sometimes you’re just shifting sideways, horizontally on my diagram here for other alternative framing. But I think that this idea that getting good at framing and reframing makes you a valuable team member in your organization is something I’d like to figure out. How do we transfer that into what we look for in friends or colleagues in our personal lives and in our non-work lives? How do you get access to people who can really help you reframe and listen actively and do that? I don’t know that we have a lot of great guidance that I’m familiar with at least. How to be that kind of friend and how to solicit that kind of feedback from somebody. Have you come across anything that you’d recommend?
Eyas: Honestly to me, this is why we have the Alliance for Decision Education and the Society of Decision Professionals and other organizations and people who are passionate about improving decision skill sets. Framing is one of those fundamental skill sets and I believe it’s trainable. So anyone, regardless of where they’re starting, can certainly improve.
And I firmly believe that we have nowhere near an adequate number of such people in our societies to really drive everyone’s lives to a better position and improve the lives of everyone. Because even one person in a circle of let’s say five to ten friends could make a huge difference on all of these families, if you will, that are dependent on them.
We do not have enough. It’s very obvious to me. I have noticed also that if you ask someone, let’s say, for help with making a decision, they would just jump in and help. And the way that they would help is by talking to you about it. Oftentimes, if not most of the time, they might make you feel good, but not necessarily give you the best counsel for your decision.
And there is a risk actually of helping someone, if you are not well-able to help them frame their decision appropriately. And that’s something most people do not realize and honestly jump their gun to help even when they could be hurting someone potentially. So I guess the best way I can think of it is really to seek that knowledge to help yourself and help others around you. Companies should also train their people to have enough critical mass of the employee base who are good decision makers and can help others make better decisions as well. So, I really firmly believe in that mission.
Joe: I appreciate that. I’m definitely going to ask you a question before we leave about the Alliance and what you want to pass to the next generation. But before we do, I’m curious about the decision makers that you know, whether at Lilly or in other professional circles that you think of as the best decision makers. What are the dispositions or the skills or behaviors that you see in them that puts them in that category for you, besides framing, since we’ve talked about framing quite a bit?
Eyas: Actually a good decision maker does not even need to be a good trainer or a good analyst of decisions, as long as they recognize what they need to make a good decision. So for a decision maker, I believe the first thing that sets good ones apart from bad ones is their temperament, especially with regard to impulse control. Impulsive decisions, emotion-driven decisions are usually how the bad decision-making just comes in. And thus people who are more patient would definitely [have] the time needed to make those decisions.
Now, the other obviously important thing is that decision makers can distinguish between an important decision that is really consequential and requires a more deep thought and analysis versus one that we shouldn’t really spend too much time on and thus base our decision on some heuristics or quick thought that generates a decision so that we can just move forward. So being able to distinguish these kinds of decisions is definitely critical. And then a few other skill sets and tendencies that I believe are important for a decision maker are recognizing missing angles. So this does not mean that they already know what the frame needs to be, but at least they have not [missed] something about an angle that they believe could be important and that’s the main thing.
Joe: I’m not following you there.
Eyas: An angle and a decision is basically a consideration that has not been talked about has not been considered yet. These skill sets that I’m talking about require patience, require not shooting from the hip, and require humility, being able to listen to others and wait before exercising your judgment and talking about what you think, because once you do as a leader, especially, that really changes the dynamics. I’ve seen it time and time again where very important people in the organization, when they are in the vicinity of a higher level leader, end up actually just saying, ‘Yes, I agree with him or her,’ rather than speaking their minds. Thus allowing people to speak their minds before you interject is important so that you can ensure that the decision space is adequately explored. And that takes honestly, an inclusive and safe environment for discussion and deliberation for you to be able to avoid blind spots.
Joe: I was just reading Annie Duke’s new book, How to Decide, I don’t know if you’ve seen that one yet. It just came out this month and she talks about decision hygiene. And one of the big things in there is protecting other people’s opinion from getting anchored by your opinion or by the way you asked your questions, like you would never want to say to somebody, ‘I think so-and-so is a real idiot. What do you think of them?’ That [would be] clearly biased, what they [would] respond with.
I know you’ve got kids coming home soon and that our time is running down. So I’m going to focus on kids for a second. Most people who are listening to this know about the Alliance for Decision Education and that we’re trying to empower the next generation of decision makers with these essential decision skills. But what I’m curious about is if we were successful, if we were able to bring the kinds of thinking, dispositions, and skills to young people that you’ve been talking about during this conversation, what do you think would look different in our society right now? And sometimes I ask people to think about the future, but actually I think whether it’s an election going on, or a global pandemic, or questions about the climate, questions about the way that society is operating, however you want to think about it, I think now is actually a pretty interesting time to examine. What do you think would be different? What would you imagine would be different if we were able to teach all young people decision skills?
Eyas: This is a huge question, honestly, Joe, and it is really at the core of why I am passionate about decision-making, the quality of decision-making, and training people for it, because I really believe that practically every single problem that anyone can think of, whether it is personal, organizational, local, national, or even global problem, [has] a fundamental decision-making involved in it. And thus, if we make those decisions well, we certainly will be better as a person, as a family, as a society, as the globe, as well. This is for me, very clearly, reflected in how I parent my kids.
I really tried to train them very early in their lives to make decisions. So when we go to, for example, purchase a toy, I give them constraints so that I forced them to make decisions that are normal [and] natural in their adult life eventually. So tell them, ‘All right, you have this budget,’ for example, or maybe that’s the money that they earn and tell them, ‘All right, choose a toy.’ And as they are looking around, I asked him questions like, ‘What makes you like this one?’ And they tell me a little more about what they’re viewing and then they start comparing the costs and what the experience that they’re getting from different toys. So I want them to develop those skill sets. For me, a skill set that is developed at six years old in choosing a game is the same skill that my teenager is going to need when he’s faced with the marijuana joint, or the request from a friend to go to a place that he knows he shouldn’t be, or to drive safely or not. It’s exactly the same skillset. And if you expand that to organizations or families, it’s the same thing. If families make good choices for their kids, that means for the family as a whole, that means the children are being nurtured in a more positive place. And if that is the case, they’re going to be more economically sound, they’re going to be more well in their life, they will be better in their health and their mental health and wellness. Just imagine any societal problem that we have right now and tell me which one is not affected by better citizens, better families, and better governments.
Now, the other thing I want to add here is how – and this is basically a reflecting reflection on the hyper-partisan and divided society that we have here in the United States and actually even globally – and basically it’s quite obvious to me that having a way for us to process important decisions and understand the different value metrics and try to come up with an appropriate balance of the different value metrics, could really be a venue or a way for us to process difficult societal choices, like how we deal with global warming, how we deal with, the divide between urban and rural areas and distribution of resources, how we deal with the division of economics, between the wealthy and the poor, everything has a solution. It just takes people to really understand the problem from a single frame, rather than extremely different frames that are never able to talk to each other.
Joe: So I know we’re gonna run out of time and if you gotta go, you gotta go. But I’m wondering about the difference though between someone searching for a frame when it’s one person and they have a relatively known or at least a consistent set of values, if you keep exploring, versus an organization where they may not all share the same values of the different stakeholders, but they have a similar value proposition with regard to the decisions the company’s making with regard to about profit maximization or shareholder return. When you’re talking about decisions in society, you have people who are not only in different situations and different values, but they also get different benefits and risks when decisions go one way or the other. They don’t share equally in the outcomes of the decision.
Let’s say that we took several of your colleagues who were decision scientists and we had them approach a political question. Because they’re skilled in this, would that make it easier to get to a shared solution or is the nature of that zero sum game where people are trying to get there? Is that going to pull them apart anyway? Would we get back to partisan issues?
Eyas: Everything I will say is purely a hypothesis because I didn’t think anyone had tried that yet. Or at least I’ve seen actually one example, I believe Frank Koch and Carl Spetzler had spoken about an instance when there was a decision to be made at the local level and there were environmental, governmental, and general population interests that were not aligned per se, in a sense, [there were] different value metrics. And they actually conducted a situation, I believe it was something related to a wind turbine or something like that and what to do with them, old decommissioned ones. And eventually really the analysis helped everyone come together and feel recognized that their value system is part of the decision problem. And secondly, understand that advancing their value metrics could come at the expense of other value metrics. So they understand that there is a tension. There’s a tradeoff, but now we’re talking about the important thing rather than shifting the problem to something else that has nothing to do with it, just because that might get you to win the argument, reframing that politicians are so good at. I mean, spin doctors that really they just want to see what is useful to them. And I think what is needed in society right now is to avoid spinning and go down to the fundamentals, understand that these social issues of immigration, economic justice, etc. are difficult, complex issues that have many facets to them.
And there’s no decision that will be clear, if you will. Here it’s all about tradeoffs. The question is: what is the right tradeoff? I wish, for example, we actually not just asked people to vote for people in elections, but ask them to vote for tradeoff levels that would be appropriate, because they’re innate in every single decision.
For example, [with] the COVID situation here, the implicit, unspoken tradeoff was the economic growth number or contraction relative to, to some degree, the lives potentially lost in this, rather than understanding that that tradeoff unfortunately is there and we can not resolve it.
I mean, to some degree, we can with some precautions, but it’s not ever going to go down to zero. You know that if you open up the economy, even with precautions, there will be more deaths. The question is what is acceptable. And rather than saying those words, one politician would tell you you’re risking everyone’s lives and the other politician is telling you are depriving people from their basic necessities and the economic viability, which both are correct in some way, but they’re not really talking about that there really is a tradeoff here.
Joe: So tradeoffs is a topic that you mentioned earlier that I wanted to go into. I also wanted to get into how we structure decisions, because I think that what you do with structuring decisions is fascinating. There’s this whole thing of once you have a frame and you’re gathering information on how those two feed into each other, but also then how you determine which information that you are gathering is credible, reliable, significant, etc. There’s just so much here, but we’re out of time for this conversation, but this was a delight and a learning experience for me as well as our audience. I just want to say, thank you. Is there any, is there any last tip or trick or book that you want to mention, to people? If you could get the word out. Does anything come to mind?
Eyas: Well, certainly, honestly, what I would leave with everyone is start the journey of improving your decision skill sets, and the returns are gone to be immense, actually rather quickly. For me, some of the books that really made the most impact on me were some of Ralph Keemey’s books, including Smart Choices. That book is really written in such a simple way that anyone can fully understand it and benefit from it. So start somewhere. It doesn’t matter. There’s so many other books I could start [listing] and probably not end here that really helps people understand what a quality decision looks like. And Joe, I really want to thank you and the Alliance for taking on this immense mission that is honestly so monumental to the level that it was maybe overwhelming to many people and you just took that challenge head on. I do believe that your work will make an amazing difference for people and I’m fully supportive of that and I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts and be on your journey and be helpful in any way that I can.
Joe: Well, thank you very much for that. That quote that you maybe didn’t even mean to give about starting the journey, we’re definitely going to be plastering that everywhere. Sorry, but that just became the takeaway. But thank you very much for your time today. Appreciate it. [Would] love to have you back sometime.
Eyas: I would love to be back as well. Thank you very much.
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