Slowing down may speed up decision making in business

By in Development, Opinion

Experts estimate that we make upwards of 35,000 decisions a day, from what to eat for breakfast to how best to allocate next year’s budget. But what makes some people better at decision making than others?

Over the last 12 months I’ve been working closely with a CEO who’s well respected for her ability to make fair and considered business decisions. As the months go by I’ve noticed two clear behavioural traits. Firstly, she takes copious amounts of notes. Secondly, she seldom makes a decision straight away.

We’ve all heard the old adage ‘sleep on it’ – but does having more time to think really lead to better decision making? Or are we better to trust those that instinctively have the answer?

My good friend Bob Christian, a corporate psychologist, believes that stepping back for even just a brief moment or two can lead to more balanced decision making, and points to the work of the late educational scientist Professor Mary Budd Rowe as evidence.

Observing the behaviours of hundreds of students, Rowe discovered that the period of silence between teachers asking a question and students completing their responses was rarely more than 1.5 seconds. Introducing a concept called ‘wait time,’ Rowe made students wait at least 3 seconds before providing their answer.

There were a number of positive outcomes. The length and correctness of student responses improved and the number of “I don’t know” answers decreased. Perhaps unexpectedly, Rowe also found that the number of students willing to give an answer increased; even the most unwilling students were beginning to participate. The overall result was an improvement in academic results.

Perhaps it’s a step too far to compare a business or boardroom with a classroom; but how often do we truly sit back and contemplate a question before giving an answer? And do all members really have a chance to participate, or do we find ourselves listening to those that respond first and respond loudest?

Could waiting an extra 1.5 seconds make a difference?

The answer lies in understanding that we have two different systems of thinking, as described by Nobel Prize winner Professor Daniel Kahneman.

There’s the fast-paced, intuitive thinking, which looks after most of the thousands of decisions you make every day. But while your intuitive thinking keeps things running on ‘autopilot’ it also tends to be emotional and errs towards the stereotypical or ‘default’ response. Then there’s the slower, deliberate, logical system of thinking which is capable of analysing the facts at hand and making rational decisions.

Problems arise when we allow our fast paced intuitive thinking to make the decisions that should really be dealt with by its slower, calmer counterpart. This is particularly challenging for those in executive finance roles where decisions can have a significant fiduciary impact on the organisation.

My advice? Let’s introduce moments of ‘wait-time’ when it comes to decision making in business. When your CEO asks your opinion on a transaction ask for 24 hours to weigh up the fact (unless of course as a top CFO, you’ve already anticipated the question!). Before responding to that email from marketing, go and grab a coffee. Sit back and really listen to your employee’s question before cutting in. Take ownership of the question or request so that your full suite of talents can provide the solution or answer.

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