Decisions decisions…….

Posted in: Bloggery

Do you ever struggle with making decisions?

A great book on this subject caught my eye recently: “The Decisive Moment”, by Jonah Lehrer.[i] It is an easy to read, articulate discussion about how best to think about making decisions.

The book emphasises the interplay of both cognitive and emotional intelligence in decision making.  Good decisions require moving between reason and feeling: knowing when to use which mode, and when to use a combination.

Lehrer explores a range of decisions.  A grid iron player and a poker player. A pilot in a plane experiencing cataclysmic system failure. Buying furniture. A child choosing a marshmallow (or deferring gratification with the prospect of getting two marshmallows).  Countless fiendish games are played with MBA students to test aspects of decision making.

Some useful conclusions:

  • Simple problems require reason. These problems are ones which can mostly be reduced to a numeric equation.  Eg the selection of the best potato peeler should mostly be driven by price.
  • Complex decisions, like choosing a couch, or a car, require a mix of reason, and feeling, allowing unconscious judgement and emotion to play a part.
  • Novel problems also require a first layer of reason, to test experience and precedent. Then unconscious judgement is called into play.
  • Embrace uncertainty and allow rich debate in your mind. Extend the decision making process and entertain competing hypotheses.  Too much certainty closes off good thinking and can lead to bad decisions. In Australia we might refer to this as the Pauline Hanson Syndrome, or maybe Katterisms.
  • You know more than you think you know.  There is a great deal of neural activity taking place beneath the conscious thinking area of the brain.  There are subtle patterns built on experience which we don’t consciously detect. Different emotional areas evaluate different aspects of our world.  “The emotional brain is especially useful at helping us make hard decisions.” “Mysteries are broken down into manageable chunks, which are then translated into practical feelings.””  This is the wisdom accumulated through errors in a lifetime.
  • Think about thinking.  “… be aware of the kind of decision you are making and the kind of thought process it requires.”  “…listen to the argument inside your head.”

For the most part, this is a book about and for individuals with not a great deal of reference to groups. I did think a little however about decision making in a group context. I think these conditions are more likely to be created when there is diversity present, with a mix of men and women.

In an organisational context I also think a lot rests on the space and context set by a leader.  Leadership should be very much about creating thoughtful discussion to enable decision making rather than linear, numerical thinking. Giving permission to discuss, and pull apart thinking in a group without people feeling at risk so that they are able to make the most of the decisive moments.

[i]“The Decisive Moment”. Jonah Lehrer, Canongate, 2009