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3 surprising ways to improve your decision making

September 19, 2018
Borderless Leadership

When faced with choices, some people are swift and decisive. Others are at the opposite end of the scale, becoming cognitively crippled in the face of a decision. But wherever you fall, chances are you’re not exactly armed with an arsenal of decision making tools. There’s the age-old tactic of making a pros-and-cons list, and that’s the entire stockpile.

Fortunately, in business settings there are often more tools at your disposal than you may be aware of, says Steven Johnson, a media critic who has written nine books incorporating science, business, and technology, including Everything Bad Is Good For You. “If it’s a complex choice with serious ramifications, you don’t want to go into it after just mulling it yourself or having a couple of conversations about it.”

In his new book Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most, Johnson presents case studies and ruminations on some of life’s most significant decisions, from the personal (whether to get married) to the geopolitical (how to take down Osama bin Laden). He surveys the breadth of research into decision making, and examines a few notable historical cases of fraught processes (for example, Charles Darwin’s struggle to publish his research while married to a religious woman whose beliefs it countered.)

In the course of his studies, Johnson has discovered some useful–and surprising–strategies for coming to a decision and boosting the likelihood of a positive outcome. Here are three steps he suggests building into your next big choice.

1. Don’t be too decisive.
Johnson warns that the biggest mistake business leaders make in their decision making is possessing overconfidence. “Decisiveness is fine for simpler choices in life,” he says. “But when you get to a really important crossroads, deliberation is far more important than decisiveness.”

Even if you have a strong gut feeling, take a week to not make the decision. Johnson cites the work of management professor Paul Nutt, who studied the technique (or lack thereof) employed in making hundreds of business decisions. Nutt found there was a significant advantage for folks who took time at the beginning of their process to look at different options, or to actively try to diversify the options available. For most of the subjects, though, “there was no stage at which they said, ‘Are there other choices here?’ and actually made that part of the exercise. Those who did were more likely to be, in the end, pleased with the outcome,” Johnson says.

2. Involve other perspectives.
“An important part of this process in a business is diversity in the group of people making the decision,” Johnson says. A multitude of studies support the notion that cognitively diverse groups make both better and more inventive decisions. Even large groups, if they are composed of like-minded individuals, underperform when compared with groups that contain a broad range of viewpoints. “It is the nature of a complex problem that there are angles of it you cannot see from one perspective,” Johnson says. While he notes that reaching a consensus can be more contentious when your workforce is diverse, it yields far better solutions by infusing the process with inherent creativity, and avoiding groupthink.

3. Conduct a “pre-mortem.”
Now that you know the goals and a range of strategies for achieving them, you have come to a decision. Next, take that decision and ask: What does the future look like if it completely flops?

It’s a concept psychologist Gary Klein dubbed a “pre-mortem,” and essentially involves asking the question: If the patient dies…what caused that to happen? By visualizing the inverse of what a successful outcome to the decision looks like (“If in two years, this decision turns out to have been a disaster, why would that be?”), individuals and teams also open themselves up to a more creative process where they can see flaws they might have otherwise overlooked.

It sounds odd, but Johnson is convinced the pre-mortem is crucial for the business setting–especially when even the most well-intentioned decisions can have wide-ranging and damaging consequences. “In any business in a disruptive field or social media that’s messing with incumbents or challenging beliefs, it’s incumbent on those companies to run pre-mortems on their concepts,” he says. “Facebook should have taken the time to say, ‘How could this be manipulated with bad actors?’ This should be an ethical imperative for these companies.”

By Christine Lagorio-Chafkin


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