Three Mind Blowing Nuances of Decision Making

We make decisions all day long . . . every day . . . until our last day.  Right now, you decided to read this sentence.  You could have chosen to slam your computer shut, hop on a cross-country train and join a traveling carnival.  Here you are again.  Will you read this sentence?

We are a product of our decisions.  There is no plainer way to describe where we are in life – both physically and metaphysically. Given the amount of practice we have in decision making, you’d think that we would be pretty darn good at it.   If instead of making decisions all day long, you juggled all day long, you would, in time, be a world-class juggler.  But are you a world class decision maker?  What is a world class decision maker?

Our society looks at outcomes and generally ignores the process.

Consider a game of black-jack (Twenty-One).  You are dealt a King and a Queen (20).  The dealer has a Jack showing.  What is the correct decision?  Let’s assume you choose to “hit” and were dealt an Ace (21).  The dealer had a Queen underneath that Jack (20).  You win!  But did you make the right decision?

Does the thought process you use matter in answering this question?  If asked, “Why did you choose to take another card?”  Consider the following two responses:

  1. I was counting cards.  Based on the cards that remain undealt, I had a 34% chance to draw an ace and the dealer had a 70% chance of holding a ten, face card, or an ace.  Holding gave me a 30% chance of winning, hitting gave me a 34% chance of winning.  I choose the higher percentage option.
  2. I don’t know.  I just felt confident that I was going to get an Ace.

Let’s face it, we know people that live their life using Answer #2 logic and some always seem to come out on top.  We also know people that use Answer #1 logic and some always seem to fall short.

Assume, your organization is on the brink of a massive project.  The results will impact your organization’s future for decades.  You must select the project manager and have two choices – Jim or Lisa.  Jim’s last two projects were wildly successful (under-budget and ahead of schedule) but he is an Answer #2 person – through and through.  Lisa’s last two projects were abysmal (way over-budget and behind schedule), but she has an extraordinarily gifted Answer #1-type mind.  Lisa’s leadership, communication, and organizational skills are far superior to Jim’s.  Who do you choose to lead the project?

There are more variables to consider and real life is always more nuanced than a hypothetical scenario in a blog post, but most organizations have a mindset that would lead to selecting Jim.  “He must be doing something right.  Look at his results!”

I am about to over-simplify the scenario, but I am confident that the resultant point will resonant.

Isn’t this situation a lot like betting on the roll of the dice?  So far, you’ve placed four bets:

Bet on 2 (snake eyes – “Jim”) – you won
Bet on 7 (the best probability – “Lisa”) – you lost
Bet on 2 (snake eyes) – you won
Bet on 7 (the best probability) – you lost

Now, you now must bet a fifth time and the stakes are higher.  You can only select 2 or 7, which do you select?

I’ve oversimplified the discussion.  There are a plethora of real-world decisions and actions that we could take to increase the likelihood of success of the project.  For example, you would probably want to know why Lisa’s projects yielded disastrous results and why Jim’s were successful.  However, few could argue that organizations often place excessive emphasis on past results when making decisions.
There are several reasons why organizational leaders make this “mistake” and several actions that they can take to increase their decision-making abilities while still striving for results-driven behavior.
Let’s start with the “why”. Consider the following three human weaknesses.

  1. We draw conclusions based on patterns derived from insufficient data. I’ll use my own weaknesses to highlight this example. I wrote an article with the hope of having it published. After the third rejection letter, my instinct was to conclude the article wasn’t good enough. Conservatively, there are 200 hundred publications that I could provide this article to for publication consideration. Is my conclusion rational? Of course not. Keep in mind, my conclusion is not necessarily incorrect, but it is not rational because I have insufficient data to support my conclusion.
  2. We see what we expect to see. Worse, sometimes we see what we want to see. Assume you hired two different consultants specializing in Operational Excellence. Both consultants have excellent reputations and exceptional pedigrees. However, assume that you told each consultant a different story. To the first consultant, you share your concerns that your corporate culture is severely damaged. To the second consultant, you share that you believe your corporate culture is as strong as it has ever been but you are concerned about how to maintain that strong culture. You provide each consultant the same information with the same access to the company. You request a report from each about the health of the company’s culture of Operational Excellence. How do you think those reports will differ?
  3. We are afraid of being wrong and alone. This is why financial bubbles are created. There is a saying about decision makers that is both absolutely true and also impossible. “The majority of decision makers will wait for the majority of decision makers to do something before they will.” Leading up to the financial disaster of 2009, there was ample information available to conclude that the housing market had grown out of control. Yet, the world’s “wisest” investors continued to invest in residential real estate. Why? Presumably, because the majority of the other “wisest” investors continued to do so as well. We are susceptible to valuing the opinions of others above logic and reason.

Fortunately, we can overcome these weaknesses. Well, we can probably never “overcome” them because we are, like it or not, fallible human beings.  However, you can’t fight an invisible enemy. Identifying our innate decision-making weaknesses is the first step in overcoming them.

Download my mini-Ebook, “How to Make Better Decisions in Three Steps” for some additional ideas on shoring up your decision-making abilities.  (It is a no-strings, immediate download through the form below).  If you don’t see the form below, visit to download the mini-Ebook.


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