Decision Making: It’s Not What You Think

How should decisions be made? Easy, we figured that out long ago. First define the problem, then diagnose its causes, next design possible solutions, and finally decide which is best. And, of course, implement the choice.

But do people always make decisions that way? We propose that this rational, or “thinking first,” model of decision making should be supplemented with two very different models — a “seeing first” and a “doing first” model. When practicing managers use all three models, they can improve the quality of their decisions. Healthy organizations, like healthy people, have the capacity for all three.

Consider how a real decision was made, a personal one in this case. It begins with a call from an aunt.

“Hi, kiddo. I want to buy you a housewarming present. What’s the color scheme in your new apartment?”

“Color scheme? Betty, you’ve got to be kidding. I’ll have to ask Lisa. Lisa, Betty wants to know the color scheme of the apartment.”

“Black,” daughter Lisa says.

“Black? Lisa, I’ve got to live there.”

“Black,” she repeats.

A few days later, father and daughter find themselves in a furniture store. They try every desk, every chair: Nothing works. Shopper’s lethargy sets in. Then Lisa spots a black stool: “Wouldn’t that look great against the white counter?” And they’re off. Within an hour, they have picked out everything — in black, white and steel gray.

The extraordinary thing about this ordinary story is that our conventional theories of decision making can’t explain it. It is not even clear what the final decision was: to buy the stool; to get on with furnishing an apartment; to do so in black and white; to create a new lifestyle? Decision making can be mysterious.

The Limits of “Thinking First”

Rational decision making has a clearly identified process: define → diagnose → design → decide. However, the rational approach turns out to be uncommon.

Years ago, one of us studied a host of decisions, delineating the steps and then laying them out. A decision process for building a new plant was typical. The process kept cycling back, interrupted by new events, diverted by opportunities and so on, going round and round until finally a solution emerged. The final action was as clear as a wave breaking on the shore, but explaining how it came to be is as hard as tracing the origin of that wave back into the ocean.

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