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How to Make Better Decisions: Slow Down

Being a good decision maker doesn't mean choosing quickly, claim a pair of authors; it means forcing yourself to slow down and fully consider your options.

Picture your ideal decision maker. Do you see an authoritative figure, quickly digesting data, confidently sorting options, weighing alternatives, and firing off firm and fast decisions?

This image of what it means to be decisive may be appealing (who doesn't want a little clarity and surety in his or her life?) but it's exactly the wrong way to think about what constitutes a "good" decision maker, according to a pair of authors.

In their new book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, brothers and academics Chip (of Stanford Graduate School of Business) and Dan Heath (of Duke) explore how to eliminate biases and improve the quality of our decisions. One of the biggest decision-making mistakes they tackle is our tendency not to waffle but to decide too quickly. Stanford's Re:Think newsletter explains that the authors devote a considerable portion of the book to the idea of widening your options, advice that may seem at odds with the very definition of decision making.

If decision making is the process of zeroing in on the best choice, why would you widen your array of choices? The reason, [Chip] Heath explains, is our tendency to get quickly locked in to one alternative. We ask ourselves, for example, whether we should fire an underperforming worker--as if to do or not to do is the only choice we have. But when you stop to think of other options--one of the authors' many tips is to imagine that your current options are vanishing--you'll often discover an answer that’s better than what you had been pondering. (Could you move your employee to a role he’s more suited for? Or give him a mentor to improve his performance?) Heath cites research showing that people who had considered even one additional alternative did six times better than those who had considered only a single option.

The goal, in other words, isn't to go fast and eliminate options. It's to slow down and add them. So how do you accomplish this? The key, the authors say, is taking the time to gather information and alternatives. Using devil’s advocates, asking people who have solved similar problems, gathering relevant statistics, and soliciting the advice of friends and family members can all help.

You might object that today's market moves too fast for such lollygagging. But Heath replies that considering less information rarely actually saves time, either because we make bad decisions (and then stick with the path we've chosen long after we should abandon it) or because we waste time anyway waffling over limited data and alternatives. 

The Heath brothers aren't the only people warning leaders not to be seduced by quick decision making, of course. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote a whole best-selling book on the limitations of quick thinking called, appropriately, Thinking, Fast and Slow. If you haven't picked it up yet, it's well worth a read in full and is packed with examples of how our knee-jerk decision-making machinery can lead us astray, as well as techniques to short-circuit bias. But for the quick-and-dirty summary, look to Harvard Business Review, which offers this article on one technique, the premortem, and another article by Kahneman himself outlining the basics of why quick decision making is often bad decision making.

Are you overvaluing speed in your decision making?

 

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Last updated: Apr 18, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in Cyprus with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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