All in all, our decision-making equipment is pretty sound. But there are a few bugs – little design flaws of the mind – that can have big consequences. We make choices that justify our past choices and then look for data to support them. Not only do we make these errors; we make them reliably.
Predictable errors are preventable errors. And a few simple techniques, like those below, can help you steer clear of the most common wrong turns.
Decision Making Problem: Authority Is Not Bestowed
Tool: Pursue Responsibility – For some, responsibility is simply bestowed: a princess is handed the kingdom upon the passing of the monarch; a favorite son inherits the family business. For most, however, the authority to make decisions must be actively sought.
Decision Making Problem: Unfamiliar Responsibilities
Tool: Appraise the Past – In embracing new responsibilities, past decisions can serve as a natural curriculum for avoiding future mistakes.
Decision Making Problem: Inexperienced Gut
Tool: Educate Your Instincts – “Go with your gut.” “Follow your intuition.” “Trust your feelings.” The sayings are commonplace, but do our instincts make good decisions? In fact, blind instinct cannot be trusted, but it can be educated.
Decision Making Problem: Analysis Paralysis
Tool: The 70 Percent Solution – Only professors and journalists get paid to say, “On the one hand…” When the rest of us continue to mine and massage the data in pursuit of perfect knowledge – and thus perfect certainty – we are edging toward that clinical condition of decidophobia, fear of facing a go point.
Decision Making Problem: Mistakes Happen
Tool: Tolerate Them – Once – Short of perfect information and analysis, mistakes are sure to happen. The secret, says Peter Pace, is: “Don’t beat yourself up. If you’re not making mistakes, I don’t need you in my organization,” which in his case, includes some 2.4 million uniformed troops. “I want you doing 90 percent right in a big universe rather than 100 percent right in a small universe.”
Decision Making Problem: Rush to Judgment
Tool: Preserve Optionality – Many decisions come with looming deadlines: the battle is lost, the market opportunity gone if you do not act in timely fashion. Even without a deadline it can still be tempting to get the hard business of choice making over with. The more one can tamp down the uncertainties and let the pieces fall in place before deciding, however, the more likely one will reach the right go point.
Michael Useem, the author of “The Go Point” and “The Leadership Moment is the William and Jacalyn Egan Professor of Management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, as well as the director of its Center for Leadership and Change Management. Professor Useem takes his students to the ends of the world — the Antarctic, the Andes, and the Himalayas — to learn about their personal and professional go points.