“The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought.” - Sun Tzu
In evaluating our ability to make wise decisions, investor, writer and producer of the Re:Think Decision Making workshops, Shane Parrish said, “Too often we’re focused on esoteric brilliance rather than avoiding obvious folly. We want to be the visible hero. However wisdom, to some extent, is the thought processes that go into making decisions about the future.”
Our bias towards the future dominates our day-to-day mental activity. What shirt shall I wear today? Shall I hit snooze… again? What will happen at this morning’s meeting? How should I respond to this argument? Shall I end a relationship; shall I start one? Our ongoing mental state is crammed with decisions that we make in order to progress through time.
In most cases we don’t take much care in making these decisions. We opt for what’s easy. We go with the crowd. We satisfice, selecting a compromise between good-enough and the amount of effort required to consider alternatives. We decide based on avoiding negative consequences rather than achieving positive ones. We apply sloppy, bias-tainted heuristics, rationales we established long ago, which we regularly dust off and reapply. This is the experience trap, a self-reinforcing cycle of bias, which is why, sometimes, the worst way to decide something is to base your thinking on a similar decision you made before.
We know that making decisions takes energy, and that there is only a finite amount of that energy available during our sixteen or so consecutive hours of consciousness. Consequently, a decision can absorb your attention in the morning, but if you have to make that same decision in the evening, you will quite easily go with whatever gets suggested. Your brain needs a rest. This is why raising an important, contentious issue at the end of a meeting is so irritating: by then, everyone is exhausted with debating and deciding.
Some of us are aware of the danger of being asked to make an important decision at the end of the day, and try to have a routine of “sleeping on it,” to allow for that energy to be recharged, and, as a possible added benefit, to allow the subconscious mind to do some of the analysis. How often have you gone to bed perplexed about a decision, and woken up with a clear understanding of which path to take? This is not unusual – and can be of real value.
Not making an effort when deciding on something may be a kind of mental survival strategy. If we applied the same energy to all decisions as we do to the most critical, we would be exhausted by mid-morning. Or, perhaps we would develop a rhythm of regular napping, to recharge ourselves and encourage subconscious processing. This is similar to research that suggests that a quick nap after learning or practicing something helps improve retention and skill development.
Yet it remains true that most of our decisions are made using what psychology terms System One processes, which are automatic, instinctive, and emotional. Where the decision has salience, we may apply System Two, which is more analytic and considered. However, because we live so much in a System One mental state, we can easily taint the analytic approach with our biases. To give just one well-documented example, we will routinely find rationales for choices that we have already made entirely based on an emotional response. We fool ourselves into thinking we are more rational than we actually are.
What can we do about this? Are we stuck with the illusion of “the decision-making animal” when, in fact, our decisions are so often biased, compromised, trumped by short-termism and, ultimately, bad for us?
We try to use the power of process to reduce these flaws in our deciding; we have decision-trees, and operations research, not to mention governance structures, and lessons learned, and subject-matter experts, and working groups. They all have their advocates and strengths, but we can find horror stories about each and every one. These processes are part of the solution – but only a part.
What we find with decision making, as we find with many challenges to long-term human survivability, is that the problem is complex and the solution has to be multi-dimensional. We have to look at people as parts of systems as well as biological creatures and social animals, and address these dimensions concurrently. It’s not just the shoe… it’s also the sock. It’s not just the sock, it’s also the gait. It’s not just the gait, it’s also the path, and so on.
There are people looking at solving this problem differently, which is why I was originally attracted to Shane and his Re:Think workshop. He and his team aim to apply a holistic approach to concepts such as innovation, leadership, and decision making. (The workshops sell out quickly but you can join the waiting list for future announcements here.)
Rather than focusing on repeatable processes, a software tool, or the latest fad, Shane’s workshops take into account the awareness of the tool user. For example, he talks about how bad processes and good outcomes can lead to an incoherent, biased view of the world, and how good processes and bad outcomes can test the cognitive integrity of the people involved.
We all want to make better decisions. That means thinking not just about decisions themselves, but also about the “we” behind those decisions and about what constitutes a “better” decision.
This post was originally published on Forbes.