Think Again

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How did you know that the decisions in your research were flawed?

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As you can imagine, trying to distinguish between flawed decisions and calculated risks that turned out badly is not easy. For each, we made an assessment. Given the information available at the time, did we think that a reasonably competent person would have made the same decision? We also looked for dissenting views in the decision-making process. The existence of contrary views is not proof that a decision is wrong. Many decisions have contrary views. But if there were no contrary views at the time, we excluded the decision from our rapidly expanding collection. We are not claiming that we have a unique ability to spot flawed decisions. Indeed, some of the decisions we examine may be considered by others as wise choices that turned out badly. Fortunately, our argument does not depend on whether our examples are correctly categorized. Our understanding of why flawed decisions are so common comes from the work that has been done by neuroscientists and decision scientists to understand how the brain works when faced with a set of circumstances that require a decision. They have found that our brain uses short cuts and processes that are, in general, very useful. However, under certain conditions these short cuts and brain processes can lead to errors. It is these “red flag” conditions that are the root cause of decision error.

Is it really possible to identify when a decision is going to be flawed?

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It is often not possible to know, in advance and for sure, whether a decision is flawed or not. However, what we can know is when a person might have particular biases that might lead to a flawed decision. Think Again describes these as red flag conditions and provides guidance on how to identify them. When such red flag conditions exist the risk of bias is particularly high. In such conditions it is wise to consider what extra process safeguards are necessary. Even if you cannot be sure that a decision is going to be flawed, you can spot when the risk of it happening is higher than normal. Even more importantly, with the help of Think Again you can do something to reduce the risk!

How easy is it to identify red flags?

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Obviously, the better you know someone the easier it is. If you don’t know someone very well then you need to decide how much effort to put into identifying their red flags. If there are millions of Dollars, Pounds or Euros at stake then it may well be worth spending some time talking to them and those who know them. Remember – you don’t need to know all the red flags. You need to know enough to decide whether there is likely to be a serious red flag or not. If there is, then extra safeguards are needed. In any case, being thoughtful about the nature and strength of the safeguards is almost certainly going to be an improvement over simply sticking with a standard process, or adding layers of bureaucracy.

Even if I know the decision maker's red flags - can I really design a decision process that eliminates
the risk of a flawed decision?

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No. But you can improve your odds! For an important decision there is a lot at stake – enough for it to be worth being thoughtful about what particular process safeguards to add. This already occurs in many, although not all organisations. So, we are only codifying and promoting what is already an existing practice. Our ambition is that such practices are more widespread. We believe that an increased use of “red flags and safeguards” thinking can help achieve this.

Won't more belts and braces, just slow down the decision process, demotivate and suppress initiative

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Potentially, but not if you follow the recommendations in Think Again! Anyone with experience of large, bureaucratic organizations will also be aware of the stifling nature of many decision processes. “More process” is not always “good process”. The reason is that many process steps also have toxic side effects. Typical toxic side effects include the cost or time involved, the loss of motivation, damage to the authority of leaders or a negative impact on the organization culture. Elaborate process can kill initiative and an insistence on collecting all the data can delay decisions making them irrelevant. The fundamental challenge in selecting safeguards is to have just enough process. Enough, but only just enough. The right safeguards are those that powerfully address the specific red flag conditions of a particular decision, with manageable side effects. The worst decision processes may not always be those with too few safeguards but those that have too many – particularly if they are generic safeguards that do not address the main red flag conditions. To pick the right safeguards, please refer to our section on Tips on how to identify red flags and select safeguards

Don't we have to make mistakes to make progress?

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You can learn from making good decisions to? From another perspective – you are happy to let your kids learn about how to make things by building lego structures that fall down. But, you wouldn’t want them to learn about the speed of trains by letting them play on the train tracks. Use red flags and safeguards thinking when the price of failure outweighs the benefits of learning.

Why can't decision makers be trained to correct their own thinking? Surely this is what the best
decision makers do?

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First, because much of our thinking occurs at the level of the unconscious, we cannot easily audit our own thinking. So, it is even for even the best decision makers to correct their own thinking. Second, the best decision makers learn to use safeguards and process. They listen to different views. They promote debate. They seek out the opposing view. At the end of this they make decisions – but not through only their own thinking.

What is the link between this and emotional intelligence?

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Yes – there are a lot of links. Our idea of “emotional tagging” – that we decide based on the emotional connections that we make when we consider a situation and our options – is discussed in Emotional Intelligence. Our focus is narrower than that in Emotional Intelligence – i.e., on making strategic decisions. But many of the insights into how the brain works are shared. There are differences too of course. We focus more on pattern recognition – not just emotions. And we are more prescriptive – laying out a way to reduce the risk of a flawed decision.