The Triple Threat to Good Decisions: Data, Time and Emotion

Right or Wrong? There are few situations more challenging to teams than dealing with a tough, emotionally-charged issue and decision-choice while facing significant time pressure and seemingly contradictory data.

If that type of situation sounds uncommon or unrealistic, consider that many firms and management teams make critical priority calls and strategic choices under just such circumstances. The decision to launch Challenger was a prime example, with all three factors playing a huge role in this tragic call.  Countless corporate strategic misfires owe their outcome to this triple-threat of data, time and emotion.

While many situations don’t involve life-safety issues, this triple-threat is something that every manager should be critically sensitive to in their group and strategic decision-making.

Data, Bloody Data

Let’s start here first. We would like to believe that we are making data-driven, fact-based calls on key issues. Unfortunately, the data quality facts don’t back that opinion.

Our firms have invested small fortunes in powerful data warehousing, enterprise management and analytics software programs, yet report after report substantiates that the data in our systems is crap.  It’s poor quality, obsolete and just plain wrong.  (Visit The Data Warehouse Institute for more on this topic.)

Beyond the fatal data quality issues, we struggle with too much information and the very real and challenging issue of how to interpret the data.  Given this challenge, it’s common for individuals and groups to engage in a game of data-roulette, including:

  • Looking for the data that confirms our opinion and then seizing upon this confirmation evidence at the expense of potentially contradictory error.
  • Sampling on the dependent variable instead of the independent variable.  This common logic error has people looking at the wrong issue and improperly attributing cause and effect.
  • Ignoring the data.  Given the volume of data typically just a click away, it’s easy for individuals and groups to quickly become confused or overwhelmed or both.  Another outcome of too much data is analysis paralysis.

Time after Time

Most timelines for business initiatives are contrived, yet many managers and groups allow artificial deadlines to impact the quality of their decisions.  Certainly, we all know that time is money and that windows of opportunity can close, and yet, I wouldn’t let either of those clichés drive me to make a poor quality decision.  I’ll accept that speed of decision-making is important, but only if it is counter-balanced with quality.

Watch Out When Emotions Rule the Day

My favorite, nausea inducing line of all is, “You’ve got to take off your (insert your functional hat) and put on your business hat.”  That invitation to suspend logic, slice your IQ and commonsense in half and make a poor call is often a ploy to both manipulate and to quickly resolve an emotion-laden issue by imploring someone to suspend judgment.

We don’t’ make good decisions under emotional stress, and that goes for relationships and major life events as well as business situations.  Our well documented and well-established fear of change, its’ close cousin, our propensity to pursue something that looks like the status quo, and our over-reliance on gut calls to reduce or avoid conflict and resolve time-pressures and data ambiguity issues all contribute to crappy decision-making.

7 Suggestions to Keep the Triple Headed Monster of Poor Decision-Making Locked Up

I pull no punches on this topic.  As the leader, you are on the hook for teaching your team to make good decisions.  Your firm depends upon it and your career depends upon it.

1. Strive for Crystal Clarity on the Issue! Frame the issue and carefully conduct a process- check to ensure that you are all looking at the same core issue and decision.

2. Hit the Brakes! If time-pressure takes over, it’s your job to hit the brakes!  I’m not certain of attribution, but the phrase: “slow down and think carefully before you do something stupid” jumps to mind here.

3. Hit the Brakes, Part 2: Too many managers are fearful of raising their hands and saying, “hold it.”  As a leader, foster a culture where people don’t get knee-capped for pulling the chain to stop the production line, and as a professional, develop a spine.

4. Just the Facts! Spend time assessing what you know, and very importantly, defining what you still need to know to make a decision.  This last part….”what we need to know,” is often skipped.

5. Turn Data Into Information and Knowledge.  Monitor data integrity and quality, and work with your group to carefully wrap it in meaning. This step is the source of many of the errors described above, so note your assumptions, watch out for framing and confirming evidence errors.  Consider involving objective 3rd parties to help look at and interpret the data and data needs.

6. Recall Drucker’s Saying: “Every Decision is a Risk-Taking Judgment.” Teach your team to think through and prioritize on risks.  Use face-to-face and anonymous input to ensure that risks are identified without the bias of social interaction.

7. Vent the Emotions and Then Move On: De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats does this brilliantly.  Use his process, or, at least create an opportunity for everyone to vent and then challenge them to focus on facts, risks, opportunities and ideas.  (Frankly, Six Thinking Hats process is a tool that has the potential to improve discussion and decision quality.  Consider identifying an experienced facilitator to help you with this process.)

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Time pressures, emotional factors and data issues are at the root of many poor life and business decisions.  High performance teams and effective leaders recognize these factors, talk openly about them when they start to encroach, and work hard at locking them back in their cage when quality of judgment is in danger.  It’s time to slay this triple-threat to effective decision-making in your environment.

Comments

  1. “slow down and think carefully before you do something stupid” jumps to mind here.” – I like the part, important part about hitting the breaks.

    There is actually a good and important skill to break things down. I’ve seen projects who fail because of lack of time, not lack of time, but lack of time before the “imagined” dead line. A dead line is in many cases just an imagenery line, that good projects need to push to be good if necessary

  2. Great Post,

    Been there, done that, have the t-shirt…

    Gathering facts without judgment is a key part of finding useful information.
    Once you have the truth, remember; “none of us are as smart as all of us”

    Mark Allen Roberts

  3. Love your no nonsense post on this topic Art. I particularly appreciate Hit the Brakes part 2. Especially when the situation is emotionally charged it can be easy to unconsciously solicit reinforcing feedback rather than actively seeking the opposing view. And the more emotional the leader is the riskier it will seem to speak up with an opposing view. if a leader wants “real” dialogue they may have to ask for it. And if they want to encourage people to “have a spine” it helps to publicly appreciate those who are willing to challenge their thinking especially when time is of the essence and emotions are running high.

  4. I’ve seen decisions drag along past the point of usefulness because everyone was waiting for some last bit of data. I’ve also seen snap judgements based on a hallway conversation. And I’ve seen thorough, detailed analysis of reasonably accurate data that leads to a timely pinpoint strategy – that seems to work best.

  5. I’m with Susan. Hit the Brakes Part #2 is a key. It takes courage and self-awareness to create an environment where people are comfortable questioning their leadership. But often those are the highest performing teams.

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