Last time we heard from Danny Fleming, the banking executive, who said that his success was in a large part due to his ability to make decisions when others would dither.
This time I’m going to a Danny closer to home: my late father, “Danny” Christian.
I was reminded of his thinking on decision making recently when a relative told me how he used to throw up his arms when she ambilivated on something.
“Just make a decision!” he’d say.
“But I don’t want to make the wrong one.”
“Making the decision is more important than getting everything right,” he said.
Sometimes it doens’t matter what you decide, he told us. The situation is just bad or good, and it’s going to turn out that way any way you go. Sometimes you make a decision and it turns out awful. Sometimes your decision turns out so great it’s hard to believe.
If you’re lucky, he said, most of your decisions turn out somewhere in between.
Don’t try for perfect. Just try for good enough.
It’s interesting that some of the best research backs my dad up on this. And knowing him, he might have been pretty well-read on it.
Gary Klein turned the decision modeling world on its ear when he took decision research out of labs and started looking at how real people made decisions in the field. They were firefighters in Dayton, Ohio originally. They showed Klein that they didn’t really make decisions. They just acted.
Klein was able to tease out that experts use their expertise. Which sounds stupid to write, but back in the 80s decision science was dominated by the thought that people made rational decisions, weighing options and picking the best alternative. What Klein and his many colleagues in what he called “naturalistic decision making” discovered was that experts would look for a match between the current problem and a “pattern” that they had in their heads from their experience. If they found a match, they stopped searching and acted. If it didn’t quite match, they would continue looking for a match or try to adapt their solution to see if that would work.
When all else failed and they couldn’t match what they were in with what they knew, they fell back on slow, plodding weighing of every option.
But most of the time they just recognized the situation as matching a model in the head and just acted.
Hence the name for this model: Recognition Primed Decision model. (Malcolm Gladwell of Blink fame said of Klein, “No one has taught me more about the complexities and mysteries of human decision-making than Gary Klein.”)
When you really know your stuff, you don’t need to ponder things. You just need to get on with solving the problem.
My dad was right. Much of the time we have enough experience with something to just make a decision.
What’s odd is that the research into consumer buying shows that people who spend less time deciding before they buy are happier with their purchase. Just making the decision can actually lead you to be happier.
Sometimes you really do need to think through things. Sometimes you are so ignorant you need an outside expert to help you understand your decision. Think about real estate mortgages: unless you are a mortgage broker, you’d better bring a lawyer in or you’re likely to get taken by the small print.
You can even augment the Recognition Primed Decision model with decision making systems that will help make larger decisions.
But more on that next time.
Image Credit: Oklahoma Land Rush. 1893, by William S Prettyman