Making decisions is tough for me.
I don't think it was always the case. But the older I get, the more responsibility that lands on my plate, and the larger the array of choices that are available to me, the harder it is for me to commit.
Last week I had another opportunity to attend five intensive, information-packed days at SXSW in Austin. Unlike other conferences, if you've been to SX, you know that you need to have a good plan before your arrive. With the inherent pressure of your company spending a significant amount of money for you to attend, over 6,000 available sessions at your disposal, competing with more than 30,000 people for seats and only so many hours in the day, you are forced to make some tough decisions.
According to multiple sources on the Internet, the average amount of remotely conscious decisions an adult makes each day equals about 35,000. That's a lot. Lately I've seen several articles detailing the science of simplicity and how some of the most prolific people in history (Einstein, Jobs, Obama) choose to eliminate trivial decisions from their daily lives (like what to wear and what to eat) so they can reserve their best thinking for higher impact decisions.
While in Austin, I was fortunate to hear Phil Libin, the CEO of Evernote, share some profound thoughts on the topic of the Art of Bold Decision Making.
Phil spoke in not-so-scientific terms about the difference between our Amygdala (the brain center focused on fight or flight decision making) vs. the Neocortex (the part of our brain that's focused on emotion and higher-level decision making). It turns out that we are all by nature pre-disposed to think first with our Amygdala. This makes sense if you think about it. We're wired for basic survival instincts. A decision on where to forge a river or which berry to eat could have fatal consequences. The challenge comes when we use that same part of our brain to make higher-level strategic decisions.
For instance, when presented with strategic choices, it is not uncommon for companies to look at a list of pros and cons in front of them and to choose the opportunity with the least downside.
The trouble here is that we fail to think fully about the true upside of the opportunity in front of us when we submit our thinking only to our Amygdyla.
The Negativity Bias is a practical theory that is easy to observe in human behavior. If you think about it, when we sit in meetings we are more likely to hear negative feedback because it makes people sound smarter. Positive statements tend to be seen as naïve or lacking sound judgment. Because we're wired to first think about all the possibilities of what could go wrong, our "flight" reflex sadly yields a larger amount of mediocre decisions. We end up with "The Least Bad" decision.
What's interesting in this same decision making model is the potential outcome if we change how we ask the question. Looking first at the option with the greatest upside may have a radically different effect.
Take for instance Henry Ford's epic decision in 1914 to double the wages of his workers. In increasingly tough economic conditions and having built a business around some of the most efficient practices of the modern era, Ford was at the peak of his success. The problem was that his employee turnover was also very high. In today's economy, when a business is radically successful they want to keep the momentum going. They don't decide to do things like double wages and cut work hours for their employees. But that's exactly what Ford did. The upside that Ford understood was that if he could keep workers around longer and give them the means to actually be able to afford the car they were producing, they would be more invested in the company culture and ultimately be happier, more productive workers. 100 years later, Ford still employs one of the most loyal work forces on the planet.
Being in the business of ideas, I've had a front row seat on more than one occasion to see well-meaning people take great and bold ideas and whittle them down to safe and mediocre. While I understand the immense daily pressures of wanting to "get it right," I think we need to be stronger and more disciplined about retraining our decision making process.
The old adage that the best coaches "don't play to lose, they play to win" couldn't be truer.
While there is certainly merit to understanding the pros and cons of any decision, I'm sure we all have plenty of room for improvement.
For now, I'm going to try and be more disciplined to spend less time on the downsides and more time asking, "What if it's great?"