I think it’s ironic that many decisions at the top of organizations are made with less emphasis on considering alternatives and collecting data than some decisions at the bottom of an organization. We would never think about sending out a request for proposals and entertaining only one proposal. But that’s what the research says: For strategic decisions made at the very tops of government or business or nonprofit organizations, the typical number of strategic alternatives that leadership teams consider is one. We’d be upset if our employees on the front line were only considering one supplier, or one potential solution for a problem.
A leader joins an organization and doesn’t have a lot of information about how the place works. What advice would you give about how quickly to act on instinct vs. how much time to spend gathering more information?
The research literature is pretty clear that instinct is reliable in situations where we have about a decade of experience in the situation. So if you’re a manager taking over a position in an organization you know well and an environment you know well, you should definitely trust your instincts. If you’re taking over a new position or a new group or a new functional responsibility, you might want to hold back for a while and consider some different options.
Before you make any changes, consider a couple alternatives. We tend to act in a way that psychologists call “confirmation bias.” Information that is consistent with our initial hypothesis — that supports what we initially believe — is just more readily available and more attractive to us. So what I would say is take the time to look for reasons you might be wrong as well as reasons you might be right.
Why do some people become incapacitated by indecision?
Being indecisive is very often a cue that we lack attractive options or the right information about those options. There was a great paper a few years back by a Stanford researcher named Kathleen Eisenhardt that said that top leadership teams in Silicon Valley who consider more options and more online, real-time information actually make decisions faster than teams who consider fewer options.
If we feel like we’ve only got one alternative and it’s not a very good alternative, it’s hard to get excited about choosing that, and so we spin our wheels.
There are some simple things that you can do, like considering alternatives so that you have a fallback or setting a tripwire. Setting a mental trip wire is a way of establishing another decision point in the future, so that if we get into a bad situation we’ll revisit it. That gives more comfort to the person who’s initially indecisive. Any problems are bounded.
What are some of the other big issues?
One of the things that people have responded to most in the book is the idea of “ooching” [or inching our way] into a decision. If we have confirmation bias, one of the best ways of testing out our assumptions is to actually do something.