Don't 'Blink' -- The Case for Careful Decision Making

Business journalist Malcolm Gladwell's recent tome Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking argues in favor of making quick decisions using intuition based on experience.

Now comes the counter-argument in Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition, by Michael J. Mauboussin, who says an important decision carries too many consequences to not put conscious thought behind it.

To gut or not to gut? That is the question. Do you think of your own decision making in this framework? How do you decide when your intuition will serve you best? When do you go in the other direction, becoming aware of your own biases, evaluating alternatives, and maybe even crowdsourcing?

To use two recent examples, I think of former president George Bush as a gut kind of guy, with the current occupier of the White House more on the "deliberate" side of the spectrum. Does your own decision making align more with Bush or Obama?

It's a fascinating question now being considered by Harvard Business School professor James Heskett on his forum on HBS Working Knowledge, What's the Best Way to Make Careful Decisions? And it's causing quite a ruckus among his readers. Some comments on Heskett's post:

  • "As a general rule, if a problem is significant, I'll have an intuitive feel for it. But I nearly always refuse to trust my intuition. So I go for data and research, and have built a reputation for unique expertise in exec and managerial development. Clients know and expect me to scrutinize their mental model and ideas. That puts a quick end to a lot of intuition." --Dan.
  • "In the most difficult case of no-time and high-risk, reliance on 'rational intuition' may be a preferred way to minimize direct and/or collateral damage if the decision goes wrong." --David.
  • "We often fool ourselves thinking that we have seen this situation before and our experience will help us make a sound decision. Circumstances change constantly, be sure to evaluate each challenge anew." --Phil.
  • "... recognize that individual intuition does not scale up as the firm grows. A single individual cannot keep abreast of many projects, and at some point the firm needs an effective framework for delegation." --John.
  • "I think a combination of Situational Awareness (perception, comprehensive and projection) and Systems thinking (structure; feedback loops, et al) is the secret to success in the business climate of 2010-2030. So yes, a little less 'gut' but more transparent structures to our decision making models would make a difference! --Garry.
  • "The problem with both intuition and data-driven decision-making is that they will fail regularly. Both may work for extended periods, but eventually non-linear effects impinge on the situation and once sure bets become devastating losers. It is almost impossible to know when unpredictable change will occur: if our models had access to the mind of God they might work unfailingly, but they don't and never will." --CJ.
Look, there is no clear-cut answer to this question of gut vs. analysis. Sometimes a considered, deliberate, thoughtful decision is appropriate. Would you launch a marketing offensive in a developing country simply because you felt like it would be a sure winner? No. And would you apply a full suite of analytic decision-making tools to choose either Sue or Gary to lead the Crawford project? Probably not.

What is important for the development of your own managerial skills is recognizing how you decide how to decide. When are you as a manager willing to go with your gut and avoid analysis paralysis? Alternatively, when do you decide that it is time to study options, alternatives, and opinions before making a decision?

Here is my touchstone. When I know that higher ups or stake holders are going to ask how I arrived at my decision, I'm probably not going into that meeting with an answer of, "It felt right." I'm most comfortable with a decision based on facts and considered alternatives, but with my own experiences playing a deciding role on what course to pursue.

How about you?

(Decision dice image by jepoirrier, CC 2.0)