Decision Making: It’s not what we think. It’s also what we see. And what we do too.

21 July 2016

So how do we make decisions? That’s easy. First we diagnose (figure out what the problem is), next we design (identify possible solutions), then we decide (evaluate each, and choose the best), and finally we do (carry that choice into action). In other words, we think in order to act: I call this thinking first.

So let’s take a decision that was hardly incidental in your life: finding your mate. Did you think first? Following this model, let’s say as a male, first you make a list of what you are looking for in a woman, say brilliant, beautiful, and bashful. Then you list all the possible candidates. Next comes the analysis: you score each candidate (so to speak), on all the criteria. Finally, you add up all the scores to find out who has won, and inform the lucky lady. Except then she informs you that “While you were going through all this, I got married and now have a couple of kids.” Thinking first does have its drawbacks--although arranged marriages in India kind of work like this, and many do work quite well. (You may wish to consider this the next time around.)

So chances are that you proceeded in a different way, like my father, who announced to my grandmother that “Today I met the woman I’m going to marry!” And that he did. There was not a lot of analysis in this decision, I assure you, but it worked out well—a long and happy marriage ensued.

This is known as “love at first sight”; as a model of decision making, I call it seeing first. Even some rather formal decisions happen this way—for example, deciding to hire someone two seconds into the interview, or buying a company because you like the looks of the place. These are not necessarily whims; they can be insights.

But not so fast: there’s a slower and sometimes more sensible way to make decisions. I call it doing first. I’ll leave how that works in finding a mate to your imagination. Suffice it to say that when you’re not sure how to proceed—often the case in making decisions big and small—then you will just have to do, in order to think, instead of thinking, in order to do. You try something in a limited way to see if it might work, and if it doesn’t, you try something else until you find what work. Start small to learn big.

Of course, this can have its drawbacks too. As Terry Connolly, a professor who studies decision making, quipped: “Nuclear wars and childbearing decisions are poor settings for a strategy of ‘try a little one and see how it goes.’” But there are lots of other decisions for which that proves to be a perfectly good strategy. IKEA came up with selling its furniture unassembled after a worker had to take the legs off a table in order to get it in his car. “If we have to do this, what do we think about our customers…?” Rest assured that IKEA must have tried this on a few products before it changed many of them.

So, have you an important decision to make? Good. Hold those thoughts! Look around! Do something! Then you may find yourself thinking differently.

(For more on this and related topics, see the book by Brice Ahlstrand, Joseph Lampel, and myself entitled Management: It’s not what you think (Amazon and Pearson, 2010).

Reference: Terry Connolly “On Taking Action Seriously” in G.N.Undon and D.N.Brunstein eds. Decision-Making: An Interdisciplinary Inquiry (Boston: Kent, 1982:45)

© 2014 Henry Mintzberg Originally posted September 26, 2014. Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing hereTo help disseminate these blogs, we now also have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn.