July 2012Strategy

Four Ways to Become "Decision Fit"

Become Decision Fit

Author of Winning Decisions and the new Brilliant Mistakes Paul Schoemaker likens critical thinking to physical fitness. When you’re "decision fit," he says, you have good reflexes. You’re in the habit of understanding what works and what doesn’t, and that knowledge provides the basis for sound decisions. But equally important to being fit is knowing when you'’re not. “You must be able to realize when conditions are not in your favor. When a golfer is injured, he changes his swing. When a business is going through a shake-up or a crisis, leadership similarly should know it may be at diminished capacity. It’s difficult to make good decisions at those times, not because you have lost your ability, but because conditions are different.”

Schoemaker, learning director of Critical Thinking: Real-World, Real-Time Decisions and research director of Wharton's Mack Center for Technological Innovation, continues, “At one corporation, executives can’t sign a contract if they have traveled three time zones. This is very good. They know travel can result in diminished capacity and they mandate an adjustment. A lack of this kind of awareness can lead to poor critical thinking.

“It is at these times when even the best critical thinkers can fall prey to decision traps, such as substituting easy questions for hard ones. If someone tells you there are only two possible solutions, for example, a light bulb would normally go off. You would ask, what are we not seeing? What are we missing? You wouldn't accept the problem as it is posed.”

What can you do when you find yourself in such a situation? Schoemaker suggests breaking it down into four key steps. “No matter the circumstances or how decision fit you are at the time, you can rely on good habits. If you have good critical thinking reflexes and you are familiar with these steps, you can avoid the decision traps that might otherwise plague you. The essence of critical thinking is to slow down the process, learn how to reframe problems, see beyond the familiar and focus on what is unique in any important decision situation. Here are four ways to hone these critical thinking skills:

  1. Slow down. Insist on multiple problem definitions before moving towards a choice. This doesn't need to be a time-consuming process — just ask yourself or the group, “How else might we define this problem — what’s the core issue here?” This should become a standard part of every project-scoping conversation you have, especially when the issue is new or complex.
  2. Break from the pack. Actively work to buck conventional wisdom when facing new challenges or slowly deteriorating situations. Don’t settle for incremental thinking. Design ways to test deep-held assumptions about your market. Of course, different is not always better so seek to understand the wisdom inherent in conventional wisdom as well as its blind spots.
  3. Encourage disagreement. Debate can foster insight, provided the conflict is among ideas and not among people. Increasingly, we live in a world where people can choose to interact only with those who agree with them, through Facebook friends, favorite news sources, or our social cliques. To escape from these cocoons and echo chambers, approach alternative views with an open mind. Don’t become a prisoner of your own myopic mental model.
  4. Engage with mavericks. Find credible mavericks, those lonely voices in the wilderness who many dismiss, and then engage with them. It is not enough to simply be comfortable with disagreement when it occurs. Critical thinkers seek out those who truly see the world differently and try hard to understand why. Often you will still disagree with these mavericks, but at times they will reframe your own thinking for the better.

Executives in Critical Thinking have told Schoemaker that the four-step process is time consuming. “That’s true,” he tells them. “Getting it right the first time does take time.”