Driving better decision making

Faced with difficult situations in our lives, especially those where we need to change course quickly, we can let ourselves fall into a reactive mode where we bypass the stage of trying to understand our situation and instead jump directly to action. When we rush to do something —wait, perhaps make that when we rush to do anything— rather than spending time thinking about what to do and how best to do it, we may end up solving the wrong problem, failing to anticipate the resistance we may meet or the hurdles we may face in implementation.

One concrete sort of occasion where we need to change course quickly is braking to avoid a hazard while driving. The graphic above shows the number of meters it takes for drivers to bring their vehicles to a halt at different driving speeds. What makes this graphic interesting in the context of decision making and behavior change is that it divides stopping distance into two activities: the number of meters needed to react and the number needed to brake. That is to say, coming to a stop requires a certain amount of thinking time and a certain amount of time to act upon that thinking

Drawing a parallel between the impact of speed on stopping time and the influence of an outcome’s significance on the decision making process, just as a more time is needed to stop at higher speeds, the more difficult and important a decision is, the more time we need both to get ready to decide and to put this solution into action.

But how should we use this additional thinking time? Russo and Shoemaker (with Hittleman, 2002) suggest using at least part of it to “decide how to decide.” They asked managers about how they spent their time during decision making and concluded that thinking time was not typically considered a key part of the process. However, when introduced to a model which explicitly called out framing and learning from experience — that is, thinking time before and after the stages of intelligence gathering and coming to conclusions — the participants in their study said they would alter their approach to decision making in order to allocate more thinking time.

“Expert decision-makers…know that they must devote a portion of their time to making choices about the decision process itself—choices that are likely to determine the character of the entire effort—before plunging into Stage 1. In this preliminary stage, you will need to evaluate the nature of the decision, decide what it is that you need to decide, identify which stages of the decision process will be most critical, evaluate how much time to devote to each stage, and devise a plan for managing the decision, getting help, and so on…we call this preliminary assessment the ‘metadecision.’”
p. 9, Russo and Shoemaker, with Hittleman (2002)

And yet all too often, even when we do engage in a meta-decision making, we make a crucial misjudgment by imagining that stopping requires less effort than starting. When we are talking about things that we need to stop doing, we need to recognize that this will also involve thinking time, time to plan the most effective way to wean ourselves off these unproductive habits. We will likely also benefit by examining our past efforts at behavior change to learn from what worked well and where we were less successful (see The ironic truth about shedding bad habits for one possible reason our outcomes might be counter to our intentions).

Moreover, as I discussed in Unbundling the habits hindering us, we need to make an honest appraisal of the behaviors we have defined as “bad” in order to see them in a more nuanced fashion. If we continue to behave in a particular way, it is very likely that there is more than laziness or lack of awareness maintaining this behavior. When invest thinking time to get clear about what is keeping us stuck or what value we get from our current behaviors, we will find that the “breaking/braking distance” for our ineffective habits becomes that much shorter.

Russo, J. E., Shoemaker, P. J. H., with Hittleman, M. (2002). Winning decisions: Getting it right the first time. New York: Currency/Doubleday.

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


Driving better decision making