It’s astonishing how many smart business leaders struggle with solving problems. We don’t mean these leaders are indecisive or complacent — far from it. In fact, in some cases, leaders make decisions too quickly, with an incomplete data set and/or inaccurate assumptions; in other cases they hesitate to decide, lacking a clear decision-making process.
Just because a leader is experienced in making lots of decisions doesn’t mean he or she makes good decisions! Our primitive brains, programmed for a “flight or fight” response to threats, react either with avoidance — the classic “deer in the headlights” scenario; or extreme decisiveness — seeking immediate closure. In either case, decisions made too hastily or too late often do not stand the test of time.
This issue is timely. A recent World Economic Forum report predicted that by 2020 – this year – more than one-third of all jobs across all industries would require complex problem-solving as one of their core skills.
Why do smart people make uninspired and predictable decisions?
In the House of Mirrors – Cognitive Bias
Imagine you are at a carnival and you go into the so-called fun house. First you see yourself very wide, then tall and thin, then with a distorted head like an alien. None of the mirrors accurately reflect how you truly look. Your perception is distorted by the curvature of the different mirrors.
In the same way, we all have personal, subjective biases that distort how we think and shape our decisions. One of the most common is “jumping to conclusions” in the belief that one knows the outcome and consequently the best action to take. This reflex reaction may have been successful in the savannah when in a clear life or death faceoff with a sabre-toothed tiger, but is probably less so when the situation is much more complex and the possible responses more numerous, such as when establishing a business strategy to deal with as yet unknown but likely potential competitors in your market from around the world.
Yet we still respond in the same way due to our cognitive biases — the assumptions we make about the situation we are facing.
The Most Common Thinking Biases
These biases come in many different forms, but some of the most recognizable are below.
Which do you do most often?
- Jumping to conclusions: Making a judgement/assumption based on no or outdated information
- Over-generalizing: Blaming the same cause for all negative results on all occasions
- Magnifying and minimizing: Magnifying the negatives and minimizing the positives (or vice-versa)
- Externalizing: Attributing one’s lack of impact entirely to external factors
- Mind-Reading: Second-guessing others’ intentions or believing others are responding to ours
All these biases prevent us from perceiving the true situation accurately and lead us to make decisions that are predictable and uninspiring. And perhaps even dangerous.
The Antidote – Systematic Problem-Solving Process
How do we overcome these subjective biases and make inspired decisions that drive breakthrough and innovation?
Inspired decision-making is all about shedding new light on the facts, leading to new perspectives that in turn lead to new possibilities and potentially a different course of action. This requires an objective, bias-free and systematic approach. Here’s how to do it:
- Analyze the situation objectively: Begin by gathering the facts, and deeply questioning what they mean. Separate what are truly facts from assumptions and possibilities. (trustworthy peers and teammates are of huge value here)
- Set objectives and success criteria: Write down the aims of the problem-solving. Pick them apart, question and challenge them. Agree on success criteria. How do you know when it is successful
- Brainstorm at least three alternative approaches
- Weigh approaches against criteria including risks and how to mitigate them
- Select the approach with the least risk (assuming successful mitigation)
A systematic approach avoids biases and makes for a stronger and defensible final decision. Seems simple and obvious, but like common sense it is not all that common.
Ultimately the success of this process depends not only on adherence to the process but also exceptional challenging, questioning, and listening skills. These three skills create objectivity, and help us escape the gravitational pull of our thinking biases.
If leaders in your organization get lost in the house of mirrors, call us to explore how we can help. No one wants to be stuck in the swamp of behaving the same and hoping for a different result. We can help!