Too Many Choices Are as Bad as Not Enough

I recently traveled by train to New York from Washington. It’s just under a three-hour trip and one of the few times in my life when I get three hours of uninterrupted time. I usually have a list of about a hundred things I want to do in those three hours, including things like catching up on personal and business reading, electronic filing on my computer, watching a movie, and writing.

But I’ve found that if I give myself too many choices, I don’t choose anything at all. For example, on a recent trip I brought along three books I was reading, I loaded a movie on my computer, and I outlined all the work-writing that I wanted to catch up on. The result? I read a few pages in two books and slept for the rest of the trip. I was overwhelmed by my choices, and so rather than doing all of them, I did barely any.

The same is true when it comes to selecting data management systems: too many choices is worse than too few. When a client is presented with more than three options, I’ve found that they have a difficult time choosing anything. There is a lot of research that demonstrates that the more choices an individual is given, the less likely they are to make any choice at all.

I recently heard from one software vendor who was involved in demos along with seven (seven!) other software vendors. In other words, the assn was trying to choose from among eight different software packages. This is a waste of time for all parties involved.

I’ve discovered through painful experience that when a staff reviews more than three or four software systems, they will start to confuse the systems – their features, pricing, and offers. In fact, this happens even when comparing just two or three systems, much less eight! And as the staff becomes more confused, they are less likely to make a decision, and less likely to be confident in the decision they make.

My recommendations, when considering a new assn management system:

  • Send the RFP to no more than five vendors.
  • Next, invite no more than three vendors to a half-day introductory demo. (Four, if you must, but absolutely no more than four.) From the introductory demos, invite back no more than two for a full-day, scenario-based demo.
  • The key, of course, is being able to identify the five vendors for the initial RFP. You can do this by talking to your fellow assn executives, using a technology buyers guide, or working with a consultant that knows this field.

By following this simple process, you can be assured that staff will be able to focus on a few very good options. Ideally you’ll be able to choose from two very good alternatives. And your staff won’t be overwhelmed into making a bad choice, or no choice at all.

This article originally appeared in the December 7, 2007 issue of Association Trends. Reprinted with permission.


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