Decision Making-Intuitive or Constructed?

Document created by tina.breslin on Nov 12, 2015Last modified by katie.mehnert on Nov 12, 2015
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By David is a Primeast's Head of Consulting.

The process of decision-making is something that is increasingly attracting attention – from academics and practitioners, in equal measure. Academics are using neuroscience and cognitive psychology to give greater focus on how thought-processes and decision-making deliver outputs. Practitioners are focussing on what the output is and how it can be improved.


I have long been intrigued by the work of Robert Cialdini and his focus on decision-making and influencing (from his 1993 paper on the effect of societal norms in influencing behaviour – ‘The Transsituational Influence of Social Norms’; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology – to his 2009 book ‘Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive’, and his current website And, there’s much to learn from an understanding of common psychological biases that affect us during our every thinking moment – Halvorson and Rock’s article “Beyond Bias” (on the Strategy & Business website, July 2015) is a great exposition of all the inbuilt biases that influence our decision-making. Biases like experience bias, where people assume that what they see is all there is to see, and all of it is accurate; expedience bias (where mental shortcuts that help us make quick and efficient decisions, almost regardless of appropriateness and accuracy); and similarity bias, where we perceive people who are similar to us positively and those dissimilar to ourselves negatively… these, and many others, shape our thinking and potentially mean that better outcomes and opportunities are missed.


The need for sharper decision-making

From several conversations I’ve had with clients, my impression is that managers are showing particular interest in sharper decision-making. This attention seems to be as a result of an over-reliance on systems and processes, to the detriment of a more intuitive approach to decision-making. In his article for McKinsey in February 2014, ‘The benefits – and limits – of decision models’, Phil Rosenzweig makes the point that “executives need not only to appreciate the power of models but also to be cognizant of their limits…most executives today would probably admit that they are over-whelmed by the volume and complexity of the decisions they face and are grateful when models may relieve some of the burden.” It is easy to either defer unconditionally to the processes and systems that aid decision-making – “the computer says ‘no’” – or to use them as a form of butt-covering and personal defence mechanism.


Furthermore, the growing expectations about the speed of people’s responses resulting from improved communications technology (email, instant messaging etc) means that we sometimes give insufficient thinking time to our decisions. Put simply, we are just too busy dealing with the daily detritus of our inbox to give sufficient attention to the ‘important’ matters.


Finding a different way

There is, however, a groundswell of interest in alternative approaches to decision-making. As far back as 2001, S.D. Sarasvathy was writing about effectuation – the use of a given set of means to arrive at possible outcomes (as opposed to defining the outcome required and selecting the means to arrive at it) – in the context of entrepreneurialism. The point here is that we can be more creative and expansive if we focus on what is available to us, what our stakeholders think and want and what is possible, rather than on a pre-defined outcome.


The 2014 book by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallance ‘Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration’ describes how film studio Pixar addressed the issue of maintaining and developing creative thinking: the book outlines a number tools and techniques to improve thinking and decision-making, including meeting-room layouts, inviting as many people as possible into the solutioneering of the most difficult problems, making departmental goals “interdependent” with corporate goals, addressing large and small problems alike with “the same set of values and emotions”, using mindfulness to focus people and clear mental clutter, developing a culture that has strong teams, open communication, flexibility, and a productive approach to mistakes, failure and risk.


Michael Croft’s recent launch of a new decision-making tool – the SPICE framework – reflects the imperative to include different thinking approaches to decision-making. This incorporates the rational, strategic element and emergent intuition, along with patterns-recognition; this methodology drives new outcomes to combat the challenges of the VUCA world in which we operate.


A more intuitive approach to decision-making


The process of decision-making has to be “constructed” in ways that enable 'informed intuition' to become the accepted way of arriving at the most apposite decision, given the current prevailing circumstances. Operating on the basis of what was decided previously in a situation that may be subtly different is not necessarily going to deliver the outcomes that are expected or decided. As Croft espouses, applying rational thinking and an appreciation of relevant patterns, set into a context, will deliver safe decisions: enabling intuition to emerge from the inclusion in the decision-making process of a number of individuals will move the outcomes from predictable to innovative and potentially game-changing.


For me, this means engendering a culture in which people feel encouraged to speak out authentically and fearlessly, in which decision-making is not ‘protected’ or in some way the preserve of a select few, and in which all facets of a decision can be brought to bear and given consideration, in a timely fashion.