A decision scientist encounters a knife-wielding attacker. Does she pause to carefully set out and weigh the importance of competing priorities, consult widely on the range of possible approaches to dealing with the situation, calculate probabilities of different outcomes, and create a ‘constrained optimization model’? We hope not. Because the literature from decision science is pretty clear that there are domains where we have to think fast. Equally, there are also plenty of domains where there is no point in thinking things through too much. Unless you opt for that weird one made out of clowns, the font of your internal memos isn’t going to matter too much…
Studies of decision-making tell us that carefully structured analysis and deliberation supports better decision-making in relation to complex long-term issues. But decision-making in time-critical environments depends much more on experience. Gary Klein is a decision scientist who focuses on how professionals make decision in the real world. His work demonstrates that experienced firefighters, pilots and so forth usually have a much greater ability to spot decision-relevant patterns in their immediate environment than non-experts. They sense when situations are routine (fitting a known pattern) and when something is ‘wrong’ (calling for a different response), for example. And they are adept at finding ‘good enough’ solutions to avert disaster by cycling through their past experiences and possible responses in rapid time.
To improve decision-making in time-critical contexts, we should be wary of overly complex and formal processes and rules. Instead, we can consider factors such as:
- Mental state: Fatigue, stress and extremely heightened emotions (fear or anger, for example), have been shown to dramatically undermines human judgement. The focus on employee wellbeing is warranted not just during the current pandemic and not just for the purposes of fairness. It is also vital for decision-making performance.
- Training: The only substitute for experience is training that as closely resembles ‘on the job’ realities as possible. The military excel at creating more realistic training scenarios and there are exceptional examples the medical sector, where simulation and augmented are an increasingly important part of medical professional development.
- Rostering/ staffing/ team composition: Workforce planning often pays some heed to ensuring the right experience mix within teams. However, decision-making is fundamentally shaped by the skills, thinking styles and communication styles within a team – and all organisations need to consider how their team structures and skills mix affect decision-making. Experience within a team matters, whenever rapid, complex decision-making is required.
Of course, saying that experience matters in time-critical situations, is not to say that it’s the only thing to concentrate on. In general, the evidence suggests that experience often only improves decision-making up to a point (20 years is not always better than 10, for example) and it seems that if there is limited feedback on the quality of decisions, then experience carries many fewer benefits. This is why a big focus at Leapwise is supporting people and organisations to understand the consequences of their decisions – and learning the right lessons from success and failure.