"How do you make a decision for something you've never prepared for?" That was the one consistent question I posed to each of the 100 serving and retired snipers I interviewed for my book The Sniper Mind. Their answer, gleaned from over 400 hours of taped talk time, will change the way you make business decisions forever.
But first, some context. I was interviewing snipers from the armed forces of the U.S. United Kingdom, France and South Africa because neuroscience shows that their decision making process has become the gold standard of excellence when under pressure.
Entrepreneurs and business owners know that the future of their business hangs on the quality of the decisions they make. Conventional wisdom suggests that these decisions are made in a rational way that balances the perceived risks of a particular action against its potential rewards.
Neuroscience, however, tells us that this view is completely wrong. According to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, emotion takes over, determines the decision, and we then use logic to explain it afterwards.
Damasio is the David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology and Philosophy at the University of Southern California and an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute. He first drew attention to this in his book Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain by studying emotionally impaired individuals. He showed that while his subjects were capable of analytical knowledge and logical thought, they were incapable of making a decision.
Further evidence backing the link between emotion and decision making has been provided by Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman whose book How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market draws on original research that shows that up to 95 percent of purchase decisions made are subconscious and motivated by emotion.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Decision Making Is Complex
We now understand that emotion activates complex neurochemical systems in the brain that release the neurochemical messengers serotonin and dopamine. These help regulate the brain's reward system that includes moods and feelings. Decision-making is governed by motivation and motivation, in turn, is controlled by how we feel.
The research shows that decision making is a complex see-saw between two types of reward: What we expect to get if we make a 'safe' choice and what we might get if we make a more daring one.
But it's not the magnitude of the reward that actually decides what we go for in the end. It's the way we feel about our decision and the way our feelings change that swings the balance towards one or the other choice in front of us.
Our feelings when faced by choices with uncertain outcomes are governed by the possible consequences of what will happen if we don't achieve what we want. Naturally, we experience fear. It shuts down the higher functions of the brain and leaves us at the mercy of instinctive responses that were never designed to be applied to business thinking.
Think Your Way Out of the Indecision Trap
This is where my lengthy interviews with snipers provide a core answer you can apply to your business. Tasked with making critical decisions, under pressure and in situations that were frequently unprecedented each of them, in different ways, drew from the same resources at his disposal: past experience.
A novel situation requires a creative approach. Creativity relies on the knowledge of what works and what doesn't in order to come up with what might work in a new scenario. It also requires experience, analysis and critical thinking.
Snipers document every single shot they take. They have details of weather conditions, light, terrain. Time of day and how they felt in the conditions they were operating under. To be able to perform like them, under pressure, you need to do three things they all do:
- Keep a journal. Record every business decision you make. List the variables. Detail what you were hoping to achieve. List the final outcome.
- Refresh your memory. When you can, run over each past decision from your journal. Re-run the situation. Go over the variables. Re-live what happened and why, so you can remember what you did well and what you could have improved on.
- Try new scenarios. From your journal, change some of the variables. Run "what if" scenarios based on doing something differently. Think through what you did and run through what might have happened had you done something else instead. Analyze to understand why you didn't, at the time, do things this way. Consider what the outcome would have been in your new scenario.
Do this consistently, and you'll end up with a mindset that gives you a natural mental edge in every business deal and every business decision, when you need it most.