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Our society has become accustomed to choices. But more choices don’t necessarily lead to better results. Marketers have recognized this based on their own research. Studies actually show that when consumers are given too many choices, they’re less inclined to make a purchase at all. And if they do decide to buy something, they’re often unhappy with what they’ve bought.

According to the Harvard Business Review, not only can excessive choices create paralysis, it can reduce people’s satisfaction with their decision, even if it’s a good one. That’s because the human mind can only process so many options before fatigue sets in. When we’re tired, we don’t make good decisions. This explains why grocery stores strategically place candy bars and gossip magazines at the checkout counter. Once we’ve used up all our prudent decision-making skills on our weekly grocery selections, impulsivity kicks in. Those Snickers bars are right there calling our name!

Educators encounter this problem on a reoccurring basis. Which reading program should we use? What textbook should we adopt? Which computer products should we buy? What elective courses should we offer? The list goes on. We’re notorious for trying to up our performance or gain a competitive advantage. However, experts say it’s better to be successful using fewer programs than to fail miserably using many.

Two factors come into play with choice overload. First is the emotional component. When selections are limited, people generally pick the choice with which they feel the greatest emotional connection. When selections are broad, we tend to blame someone else if our choice turns out to be a bad one.

Second is complexity. When we only have two or three items to choose from, it’s easy to notice the distinguishing features. However, when the selection size is larger, it’s hard to identify the differences between each item. This makes the decision more complex. And complex decisions require more thought and energy, which only magnifies the importance of the decision.

Consider four strategies to help staff avoid the “Snickers Bar Syndrome”:

  1. Place students—not the program or product—at the center of the decision. If the discussion is around students’ needs, teachers are less likely to get caught up in a debate about the value or merits of a given program that aren’t related to students and learning.
  2. Help identify the trade-offs. Have teachers articulate what programs they can stop using when they decide to start using a new one.
  3. Coordinate the timing of major choices. If teachers are in the process of selecting a new math series, don’t ask them to also decide on a new online data management system.
  4. Use what’s already there in the most optimal way. Before buying a new product or program, identify the tools that are already available to teachers. Ask them to clearly articulate what’s missing. Determine if any existing resources can be used to fill these gaps.

Schwartz, B. (2006, June). More isn’t always better. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2006/06/more-isnt-always-better

Thought for the Week

Simply pulling a strategy “off the shelf” or defaulting to the most recently read article or staff development session topic may not generate the results we seek.

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