January 30, 2005

First, Stop and THINK

The changing nature of decision making and why it's important to think about thinking.

Malcolm Gladwell's recent book Blink, is about the rapid, spur-of the moment decision making process. Subconscious decisions that characterise a surgeon in an operation theater during an emergency, fire fighters at the time of an outbreak and someone like you and I the moment we lay eyes on another person for the first time. Gladwell argues that these decisions taken at the blink of an eye, so to speak, are rarely accorded as much attention as the traditional more deliberate decision making process that involve taking time to carefully evaluate all available and relevant information.

But is this latter assumption any longer valid? Do we really take time to make a decision carefully? Do we pause to consider all the consequences, evaluate available and relevant information? Really. Do we actually set aside time to contemplate our decisions, as we do for our meetings?

I doubt any company today believes it can afford this 'luxury' amidst the I-want-this-yesterday deadlines. I fear what was once a long drawn out decision process is rapidly turning into the spur of the moment decision though not necessarily informed by experience. I'm not implying that one needs to meditate over decisions before taking them or that more data aids decision making. But there's a need to pause the race to nowhere and reflect upon whether we understand the facts clearly, do we know what the decision means in the larger scheme of things, if we aren't ignoring any critical factors and how the decision is going to effect change.

I sometimes think about this. At one point, while moving and renaming this blog, I considered keeping the tagline 'stop and think' or a variation like, 'pause and reflect' -- the key idea being 'thought', because all my past posts were reflections rather than comments on news. Here are some select quotes on the topic that I've collected over time.

Media today
In the old days, we had the time and inclination to consider the implications of a decision. Everyone wasn't in quite so much of a hurry. At the same time, most conversations (and most arguments) were local ones, conducted between people who knew each other.

Today, it's very different. Television demands a sound bite. A one hundred word letter to the editor is a long one. Radio has become a jingoistic wasteland, a series of thoughtless mantras, repeated over and over and designed to fit into a typical commute. Even magazines have lost their ability to present complex arguments that take more than a minute or two to digest. Business Week would rather put another picture of Jack Welch or Bill Gates on the cover than actually teach its readers something new.
Alas, blogging is falling into the same trap as many other forms of media. The short form that works so well online attracts more readers than the long form. Worse, most blogs stake out an emotional position and then preach to the converted, as opposed to challenging people to think in a new way.

Seth Godin and others in ChangeThis manifesto (PDF, 148 kb).

Here's an idea: Have mainstream news journalists at CNN, CBS, NBC, ABC and the crew at FauxNews think before they write. And have them think a lot.

Really, toss the templates. Tell them to get out a BLANK sheet of paper or whatever they want, but write down what they they know. Then have them study it, rewrite it, and study some more. Then have them think about it. After they really understand all of the issues involved in their assignment, THEN have them worry in what way to best tell the story, with what flow, music, images, clips, etc.

Andrei Herasimchuk, designer, making a point in an online discussion.

When it comes to design I still haven't found a better method than "thinking through."

Ziya Oz, designer, in a discussion on design goals.

We must understand what it's like to not understand. Then and only then can we make something understandable.

Richard Saul Wurman, prolific author and founder, TED conference.

Business success
Such breakthrough thinking is less serious than deep contemplation and less silly than sitting in a beanbag chair squirting colleagues with water pistols. The key, is how you are thinking about a problem for a long time.

Guy Kawasaki, Venture Capitalist and former Mac evangelist on his manifesto for success.

Most managers don't want to devote this much time to thinking. But they would never go to a surgeon who approaches his job the way they approach theirs, nor would they send their children to a school that has the same atmosphere as their company; it doesn't foster learning.

Gerald Zaltman on taking time to understand data, in a Harvard Business Review interview.

If I had one wish, it is to see organizations dedicating some effort to study their own decision processes and their own mistakes, and to keep track so as to learn from those mistakes.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in an interview (requires free registration) when asked, "what is it that you would most like senior managers to understand about your work?"

UPDATE 31-Jan: Christina Wodtke points to The Thought Project. Unrelated to this post, but very interesting. "I stopped strangers on the street and asked them what they were thinking about the second before I stopped them." The Thought Project.

Notes and Links

My first impression of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink is that it's a rehash of old ideas packaged as a 'discovery' for those unfamiliar with developments in psychology. Maybe I'm wrong as I haven't read the book but this is what I felt from the excerpts.

None of the three excepts provided on Gladwell's site reveal any new information. It has long been known to psychologists, for example that much of our thinking is invisible to us and that appearance does influence our judgement a great deal even though we deny it -- the two points he makes in his first and second excerpt, respectively. The third excerpt taken from his last chapter on mind reading is actually a reprint of his 2002 article - The Naked Face, in which he introduced the fascinating science of understanding facial expressions and emotions.

Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Bank of Sweden prize in economic sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel, sometimes referred as the Nobel prize of economics. Technically, there's no Nobel prize of Economics as it finds no mention in Alfred Nobel's will. The bank of Sweden prize was first awarded in 1969 and is decided by the same academy that decides the Nobel prize in Physics and Chemistry.