Making Intentional Decisions
October 24, 2012 Leave a comment
When I was living in California in 2009, I went up to Lake Tahoe for a weekend with my room-mate, and we climbed one of the peaks near the Lake. It was a beautiful walk, on well a trodden path. As I walked up the hill in fact, I was under the impression that there was only one path.
When I started coming back down however, I kept seeing paths that I had not spotted on the way up. This wasn’t because they were hidden and I was suddenly paying more attention. In fact, they were such obvious forks in the path that in some cases I had a real struggle to work out which would take me back to the car park.
The reason these paths were not obvious on the way up is that they joined from behind.
When walking up the hill, I was following path A. When I navigated the junction, path B continued virtually straight ahead so I didn’t even notice the other option, path C. When coming down the hill I was following path B. Now when I reach the junction, I see I have two options very clearly.
I will never know if some of the alternative routes up the hill would have been better. Perhaps I missed an easier walk, or a spectacular view, or some wonderful wildlife. That’s OK, but I made the decision to go the way I was going unconsciously, without making any conscious evaluation of whether that was right for me or not. That seems like a missed opportunity.
For startup companies with limited resources, missing an alternative path simply because it isn’t obvious can be the difference between success and failure. My professors at Babson College described avoiding this as “Intentional Management” or “Intentional Decision Making”. This means understanding both the obvious and non-obvious choices we make every day, and applying rigorous thinking to making decisions.
How do I try to achieve this sublime state of intential management?
- STOP and look at what I’m doing critically. That means questioning things that have “I have always done that way” and looking round for opportunities to do better. It means stopping and turning around so I notice path C!
- Recognise the difference between my emotional and rational responses and give them appropriate weight. Another Saltire Fellow Martyn Tulloch recently recommended the book “The Chimp Paradox” as an interesting exploration of how our emotional “inner chimp” affects us, and how we can manage it. The author and this approach have received plaudits from some of our medal-winning Olympians who used it in their Olympic preparation.
- Check the quality of my decisions. As humans there are a number of traps we frequently fall into, and I find the Harvard Business Review article “Hidden Traps in Decision Making” is a great reminder of what these are and how to detect them in my own thinking. At 6 pages it is an easy read, and at $6.95 for a PDF download it is an absolute bargain. There is a preview of the first page, and you can buy it as a single article PDF.
Another way of improving my personal decision making is to seek help from others. Often my wife helps me with decisions about my business, and I have used mentors successfully for this too. Asking for outside help often helps to accomplish the same things as I listed above:
- An outsider has a specific remit to look at everything that is going on, and doesn’t have the same underlying assumptions as an insider
- An outsider is likely to have a lesser emotional engagement, so can help to separate and prioritise different emotional and rational responses to a situation
- Experienced mentors, directors and consultants often have a well-developed sense of how to avoid psychological traps and can help to reframe a decision to avoid them
Often for companies I work with a part of the value I add is simply through these mechanisms – coming in without the assumptions and emotional attachments of the team and thus helping to improve the quality of decision making.
Questioning everything for the sake of it is foolish and a waste of time, but so is missing opportunities by walking along without looking around. The trick is to strike the right balance, achieving that sublime state where effort is carefully directed and expended on making intentional decisions on those matters which are important.
I’m going to keep reading, keep learning from others, and keep trying to improve my decision making one little bit at a time.