photo of a hand pointing

Mitch Winkler, P.E., R.Eng, M.ASCE, draws broad technical, non-technical, and managerial experience from 36 years of working for Shell, contributing to global business success in the Arctic and deepwater with roles in engineering, technology development, and development planning.

Recently, he has worked with senior capstone project students at his alma mater, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, to use decision-quality concepts to improve their project deliverables and grow their skillsets as they prepare to join the workforce.

In this ASCE Member Voice article, Winkler breaks down the essence of decision-making, sharing processes to improve your civil engineering work.

We make decisions every day.

Many of these decisions are small, within our “wheelhouse” of knowledge and expertise, and probably of minor consequence. Occasionally, though, as civil engineers, we are faced with decisions that might be out of the ordinary and bring with them some combination of complexity, uncertainty, and medium-to-high consequence.

So how do we develop confidence in our ability to make good decisions?

Cognitive biases: Decision-making traps

In an objective world, free from “answers in book” or management directives, cognitive biases are probably the single biggest impediment to making good decisions. The concept of cognitive biases was first identified by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the early 1970s. The role their research plays in everyday life is now far-ranging, from behavioral economics to baseball sabermetrics. Some examples of biases – also referred to as heuristics – include

  • Anchoring: Why do we tend to rely heavily on the first piece of information we receive?
  • Availability: Why do we tend to think that things that happened recently are more likely to happen again?
  • IKEA effect: Why do we place disproportionately high value on things we helped to create?
  • Representativeness: Why do we use similarity to gauge statistical probability?

Kahneman went on to show that humans have two modes of thinking: System 1, where we think fast and predominantly rely on instinct and emotion; and System 2, where we think slowly and predominantly rely on deliberation and logic. Not surprisingly, System 1, also called the lazy part of our brain, dominates most of our decision-making.

Decision quality

One way to overcome cognitive biases and mitigate that System 1 trap is to apply a structured approach to decision-making. These approaches generically fall under the heading of “decision quality” and break the decision into discrete attributes, thus allowing the attributes to be assessed and quantified before implementing. Decision quality typically has six attributes:

Appropriate problem frame

What decision are we trying to make?

Do we have the right scope for the decision?

What is the context and background of the decision?

Do stakeholders understand and agree with the scope of the decision?

Meaningful, reliable information

What do we know?

Equally, what do we not know?

Have we identified the key decisions?

Do we know and trust our sources of information?

Creative alternatives

What are the options or choices?

Are these doable and actionable?

Clear values and tradeoffs

What do we want to achieve?

Do we understand our value drivers?

Do we know the relevant tradeoffs?

Logically correct reasoning

Are we using good logic to evaluate our options?

Are we using available information and keeping in mind what we want?

Have we applied appropriate decision-making tools?

Commitment to action

Are our stakeholders ready to make the decision and ready to act?

Of course, the ideal situation combines good process with good outcome. Unfortunately, uncertainties sometimes prevail, and you don’t get the desired outcome even when you follow a good decision-making process. While one can’t control the outcome, at least one can control the quality of the decision-making process.

Unlocking creativity

A quality decision-making process can drive creativity. Decision quality can help to overcome cognitive biases and provide a vehicle for civil engineers to develop creative solutions while also bringing their clients along on the creative journey.

A great idea is only great if it can be communicated and sold. Innovation and disruption do not naturally sell. One way to sell a new idea is to put it in perspective with the alternatives and show how it measures up against the value measures of importance. A decision – by definition – requires alternatives. It’s also imperative that to have, from the client or customer, permission to ideate and a notional agreement for commitment to action at the get-go.

The augmented and modified steps based on my experience in ideation and selling an idea are:

  • Practice empathy and ask a lot of good questions.
  • Clearly define the problem.
  • Secure the commitment upfront to consider new and/or disruptive ideas.
  • Clearly establish what’s important by way of values, priorities, and tradeoffs.
  • Practice ideation (e.g., apply a structured brainstorming process) and generate at least two alternatives to your central idea.
  • Apply logically correct reasoning to show how each of the alternatives measures up against what’s deemed important.


The application of structured techniques for making decisions is commonplace in the oil and gas industry, where I spent my career. I think techniques like decision quality present a significant opportunity for civil engineers to up their game, to help unlock creativity, and to enhance performance.