Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

effective decision making

Emotions And Critical Thinking

My emotions are telling me something.

Let’s say you’re about to give an important speech to a large audience. You’re nervous and your palms start sweating. Which of the following statements is true?

  1. Your brain is nervous and communicates to your palms, telling them to sweat.
  2. Your body is nervous and uses sweaty palms to communicate to the brain, telling it to be prepared.

I never really thought about this before I started teaching critical thinking. However, if you had asked me, I would have guessed that the first statement is right. Over the past several years, I’ve switched my position. Today, I think that the second statement is much more likely to be correct.

Each time I teach critical thinking, some students tell me that they’ve seen the light. From now on, they will ignore their emotions and make decisions based solely on logic and critical thinking. They will emulate Mr. Spock on Star Trek. In my opinion, that’s the wrong thing to do.

Our emotions are a source of information. They tell us something. What they tell us is not always clear. Further, it’s not always correct. But they are worth listening to. In fact, I now think of intuition as the body communicating to the brain, through mechanisms like sweaty palms, shallow breathing, shortness of breath, and so on. Our bodies sense our surroundings and communicate information to the brain.

According to Susan David, a professor at Harvard, our emotions can help us clarify our values – but only if we listen to them. In a recent HBR Management Tip of The Day, she writes: “Our emotions are signals that can give us data about what is important to us, but only if we pay attention. Next time you feel emotional at work, take a step back and consider what it’s telling you.” (Literally taking a step back can help you see your options more clearly, too).

She then goes on to explain how emotions can help us understand our core priorities. She suggests that we can’t get to those core priorities solely by thinking – we need to tune in to our emotions. The Heath brothers, in their book, Decisive, also emphasize the need to identify core priorities and offer some tips on how to do it. Between David and the Heaths, you can identify your priorities and learn ways to focus on them.

I’d suggest that you treat your emotions as just another information source. Treat the information that comes through the “emotion channel” just the same as any other information. Evaluate it in the same way as any other piece of information, using the same go-to questions and evaluation processes. Your emotions may be right or they may be wrong. But they’re always worth listening to.

You can find Susan David’s tip of the day here. (The tip was published on February 9, 2017 – just scroll back to that date). You can also find her longer article in HBR here.

Gaming the Tripwire

We need to make a decision.

We need to make a decision.

When you make a decision, you create a certain amount of inertia. Let’s say your company decides to pursue Option X. Just by making the decision, you’ve created a vested interest group – people who benefit from continued investment in Option X. They will lobby for Option X even if turns out to be a bad decision. They may also lobby against review processes that could reverse the decision.

To ensure that you review decisions adequately, Chip and Dan Heath recommend the use of tripwires. The tripwire sets conditions that require you to review your decision.

David Lee Roth, lead singer of Van Halen, used a particularly ingenious tripwire to determine if a venue had fulfilled its contractual obligations. As the Heaths point out, Van Halen’s “production design was astonishingly complex.” Lots of things could go wrong and, if they did, band members might be injured. Given the complexity, how could the band quickly tell if all the contractual obligations had been fulfilled?

Roth came up with a simple solution: in the midst of a complicated contract, Roth inserted a demand: a large bowl of M&Ms would be on hand with all the brown M&Ms removed. This was Van Halen’s tripwire. If the bowl of M&Ms was properly prepared, the band knew that the local managers had read the contract closely and had (most likely) done everything right. On the other hand, if a brown M&M appeared … well, it was time to throw a fit and double check everything. A brown M&M indicated that a critical decision needed to be made – should the show go on?

Tripwires are good ideas but they can be gamed. At my college, for instance, all male students had to take two years of military science (ROTC). We marched around in uniforms and learned the proper care and feeding of an M1 rifle.

Every month, officers from the local base inspected us. They paid particular attention to the cleanliness of our rifles. There was one part of the rifle – just below the barrel – that was especially hard to clean. We noticed that the officers always focused on that part of the rifle. If it was clean, they assumed that the rest of the rifle was also clean; there was no need to look further. It was a tripwire.

As soon as we cadets realized this, we cleaned only that part of the rifle. In fact, we had contests to see how dirty we could make the rest of the rifle without being found out. We learned that we could pass inspection with filthy rifles as long as that one small section was clean. We delighted in fooling our officers.

Tripwires are great ideas. They remind you that all decisions are temporary and need to be reviewed from time to time. They set conditions that trigger such reviews. But they’re not foolproof. If the people who support the decision figure out the tripwire, they may well try to game it. It’s up to you to figure out how the game works.

Deciding Decisively

I want more options.

I want more options.

Last week. I wrote about Chip Heath’s presentation skills. Today, let’s talk about his cognitive skills. Chip, with his brother Dan, has written three books: Switch, Made to Stick, and Decisive.

I’ve written about Decisive before and I expect to write about it again. Today, I’ll give an overview of the four major parts of the Decisive paradigm. I hope this will be useful in itself and it should also serve to introduce future articles that delve more deeply into each of the four elements.

Heath suggests that the path to better decision making is summarized in a simple acronym: WRAP. Here’s a thumbnail description of each.

Widen Your Options – too often, our decisions come in the form of “whether or not”. For instance: “We need to decide whether or not we’re going to acquire Company Z.” Much better to say, “What’s the best way to invest our capital to increase our market share?” Heath reports on one study that suggests that multiple-choice decisions are six times more likely to result in good decisions than are whether-or-not decisions. (This is very similar to Paul Nutt’s concept of premature commitment or to a doctor’s narrow framing based on your medical record.)

Reality-test Your Assumptions – I’ve written about confirmation bias before; Heath says that it’s much more pervasive in business than we might realize. The boss wants to do something, so all of us underlings look for evidence that she’s right. Moral: don’t surround yourself with yes-people. Before making a big decision, hold a trial with two well-prepared groups arguing the pros and cons. Also, remember the base rates. If nine out of ten start-ups fail, there’s a 90% chance that your start-up will fail. Really, there is – you can learn more here.

Attain Distance Before Deciding – My Mom used to say, “It’s easier to avoid temptation than to resist it.” In essence, that’s Heath’s advice, too. Making a big decision stirs up emotions ranging from fear to greed and most everything in between. So, get some distance. Time can be a form of distance; putting off a decision may help you think more clearly. (But not always). You can also ask yourself a simple question: “If my best friend asked for my advice in a similar situation, what would I say?”

Prepare to Be Wrong – when I climbed in the Andes, my buddies and I would often create a go/no go decision like this: “If we don’t reach such-and-such point by such-and-such time, we need to abandon the climb and return to camp.” Heath calls these tripwires. They’re agreed upon milestones or events that will jolt us out of autopilot. Without tripwires, we may just go merrily on our way, assuming that our original decision was correct. Tripwires help us focus on unfolding events and take corrective action.

Is that all there is to decision making? Not at all, Heath tells some great stories along the way and I’ll write about them in the future. For today, however, that about WRAPs it up.

Presenting Decisively

chip heathThe other day, Suellen and I saw Chip Heath give a presentation on the key messages of his new book, Decisive. Heath is on tour to promote the book and Denver was a well-promoted stop along the way.

I’ve written about the book in recent weeks and plan to write more in the near future. It’s a simple, clear synopsis of recent research on decision-making.

Today, however, I want to focus on Heath’s presentation style – he reminded me of many lessons I’ve learned in public speaking. Here’s a summary.

Establish rapport and credibility – a large audience turned up in Denver and Heath commented on it immediately, saying, “It’s clear that the people of Denver are intellectually curious. In fact, I’d say that they’re four times more curious than people in Austin and eight times more than people in Los Angeles.” It was funny but it was also a nice compliment. We loved him right away. Best of all, it wasn’t canned.

Slides as hooks not as script – Heath used a lot of slides. He advanced to new slides regularly; no slide stayed up for more than a minute or two. Each time he advanced, the audience “refreshed”. Most of his slides had fewer than ten words on them. Many had only an image. Heath told the story; the slides illustrated it. The text on the slides helped you remember the key points; they didn’t steal Heath’s thunder.

Tell a story, not an abstraction – Heath told a lot of good stories about decisions gone right and gone wrong. They were stories about flesh-and-blood people whose experiences illustrated key ideas about decision making. Every now and then, he would state an abstraction to summarize a point.  He never said, “the moral of the story is…” but he could have.

Humor — he wasn’t rolling-in-the-aisle funny, but he had a dry, wry sense of humor that helped hold our attention. We paid attention partially because we didn’t want to miss a laugh line.

Parallel construction – Heath’s book has four major messages – the WRAP process. Heath covered all four and each section was structured in exactly the same way. We always knew exactly where we were in the narrative. We never got lost.

Finish early – Heath finished about ten minutes ahead of schedule (at least, ahead of the schedule that I had in mind). Giving 500 busy people ten minutes of their life back is a nice contribution to our mental welfare. We appreciated it.

Practice, practice, practice – it was clear that Heath was a polished presenter and that he had given this presentation before. That didn’t make it boring. Rather, we concluded that he respected us enough to make good use of our time. If he respects us, we can respect him.

How Does It Feel To Commit Prematurely?

Is it too soon to get married?

Is it too soon to get married?

In February, I wrote about premature commitment. According to Paul Nutt in his book, Why Decisions Fail, premature commitments all too often lead to debacles — decisions gone spectacularly and publicly wrong. The process is fairly simple: 1) we have a problem; 2) a beguiling solution is proposed; 3) we jump on the solution with undue haste and without considering our options or searching for alternatives. After all, we have a solution, don’t we? Why bother looking for another one?

As we read Nutt’s book in my classes, I can tell that students are grasping the general concept intellectually. It’s clear — intellectually and academically — that you shouldn’t commit too soon. Step back, look around, ask questions, survey the possibilities — then make a decision.

That’s all well and good in the classroom but will my students actually be patient when the pressure is on and everyone wants to be a hero? I’m not so sure. So, I’ve been looking for ways to show students what it feels like to make a premature commitment. By experiencing the process — rather than just reading about it — I’m hoping to imprint something on them. When you’re under pressure and a crisis is looming, it’s hard to think clearly. It’s easier to remember an experience than it is to organize your thoughts and respond to a novel situation.

I’ve discovered a video that helps students make the connection. Actually, I’ve known about the video for some time but I used to use it for a different purpose. Then it dawned on me that the video provides a good demonstration of a premature commitment. So, I’m re-purposing the way I teach it. Perhaps that’s an example of mashup thinking.

The video requires you to concentrate your attention for about 90 seconds and count the number of times a specific action happens. Here’s what I’d like you to do: Watch the video twice. The first time, focus intently on the task at hand (the video will explain what to do). Count the number of times the specified action happens and record the number. There is one (and only one) correct answer.  Then watch the video a second time and don’t bother to count. Just observe what goes on. Don’t read on until you’ve watched the video twice. You can find the video here.


Watch the video (twice) before proceeding


Did you miss anything the first time you watched the video? Did you notice it the second time? (I’m not going to give it away here but, if you find this confusing, send me an e-mail and I’ll explain it).

About two-thirds of the people who follow the instructions miss an important element of the video the first time they watch it. Perhaps the key phrase here is “people who follow the instructions”. Basically, I conned you into making a premature commitment. I convinced you that — to get the right answer — you needed to pay close attention to the action and count carefully. You decided that it was important to get the right answer, so you played by the rules I imposed. Because you played by the rules, you missed something important in the environment.

What’s the message here? It’s easy to get caught up in the situation. It’s easy to buy into the “rules” that a situation seems to impose on you. It’s easy to let other people rush you to judgment. It’s easy to con yourself. The next time you’re at work and a problem arises and everybody is rushing to find a solution, just ask yourself: “Am I missing the gorilla?”

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