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The Rush to Decisions

Why o why, I’ve wondered for decades, do US-trained business leaders believe that it’s the first answer to a problem or challenge that deserves action? Why do organization leaders jump to conclusions as if it’s a demonstration of prowess?

In the first episode of season 4 of
Revisionist History Malcolm Gladwell gave me the key to a puzzle.

In my coursework for
the Institute for Management Studies I’ve pointed out how different US-educated managers are from those in Europe and Asia. In the US I constantly try to tease out more choices in decision-making meetings. In Europe the participants delay making hard and fast choices until there has been robust discussion, encouragement of alternative approaches, and a consensus is reached.

Gladwell makes a compelling argument for “tortoises” over “hares” in the first two episodes of his highly-listenable series season opener. Subscribe for free wherever you get your podcasts. His story involves taking the Law School Aptitude Test next to his personal assistant, a Harvard-educated whiz kid decades his junior. He interviews the executives in charge of the LSAT especially on the point of why the test is timed and
I make the case for delaying big decisions until the situation is more clearly understood. Analyzed. Even slept on. I teach a number of techniques including implication-thinking, uncertainty evaluation, and “see around corner” techniques. I use a real-life case so participants can get hands-on with making some big business decisions in the face of a crisis without a big chunk of crucial information. I point out that almost no decision needs to be made in any tough spot for at least 48 hours. I want to help leaders come up with the best option, not the first.
It’s not easy. I’m working against decades of conditioning. Gladwell reveals why. In the US we’ve grown up with testing from age 5 onward. Not just any testing. Timed testing. We’ve been given multiple choice, essay, and other tests with strict time limits. We are monitored. “Pencils down” means time is up. You’d better be right. You’d better be quick about it.
Starting in elementary school we enter the world of timed tests with real impact for those who want to go on to higher learning. I can remember IQ testing in 3
rd grade. There was the PSAT early in high school. The National Merit test. The SAT. Advanced placement tests are required if you want into certain classes. Graduate Record Exam if you want more than a bachelor’s degree. It never stops. In college there are specialized tests to go on to certain graduate programs. The Law School Aptitude Test that Gladwell tells about in his podcast is a timed test that consultants admit doesn’t truly measure depth of knowledge but quick thinking.

Before I could even start writing my thesis for a master’s degree I took a written (timed) comprehensive exam. Then a follow-up timed oral exam by three professors. Two hours of agony. If I hadn’t been able to come up with quick responses to their knowledge-based and analytical questions I wouldn’t have passed. But by that point in my education I was very adept at what I call “problemsolution” responses. I really should have been encouraged instead to develop “problem… solution” responding.

When we were students engaged in the Socratic method we itched to throw up our hands when teachers asked questions. The first hands up were called on for peer recognition.

The upshot? We’ve developed an unhealthy tendency to jump at solutions especially in America. Team meetings are often dominated by the quickest responses, not those that are the most thoughtful, considered, nuanced, or ultimately effective.

As a strategy consultant working with governance and top management I see the damage it wreaks. Quick conclusions flow from mouths. Decisiveness is valued more than good decision-making. Crowded agendas dampen objections. The strongest advocates dominate discussion time. The most thoughtful thinkers are drowned out in a rush of group-think. The loudest voices hold sway.

I often ask, “What will happen if you put this decision off for 48 hours?” There’s almost no situation so dire that it needs attention in a few minutes versus a few days. I was part of a real-life situation where this occurred. A major international retailer of coffee ran into the SARS outbreak in China while opening stores there. The easy decision was to suspend operations

What are the payoffs of waiting to make decisions?
  • You have time to assemble a team. Any group, but especially one made up of people with diverse viewpoints, will be better at a decision than a singer person.
  • You can take time to lay out the problem and allow individuals to come to independent conclusions. That’s the foundation of the best problem solution.
  • You tease out the real complexities of the problem. Contemplation reveals twists and nuance of the situation. Those don’t occur in a few minutes. They occur to people over days. They come to us in the shower. They pop into our mind after a good night’s sleep.
  • You get more options. Plans B, C, and even D. Plus you get to test and compare the solutions.
  • It takes the pressure off without ending consideration. Adjourning a meeting doesn’t end thinking. The mind continues to evaluate, compare, and come up with new options.
  • You gather more information you can use to make the decision. Time allows you to wait for essential facts that might not be at your disposal if you pull the trigger in a tight window.
  • You get time to consider the follow-on impact of the decision. These discussions allow the best choice to surface and back-up approaches can be ready for quick switching.
  • You get better decisions.