still karate instructor surrounded by students in motion

With Decision-Making, You Have to Go Slow to Go Fast

September 14, 2022 Leadership
Stowe Boyd
By Stowe Boyd

In martial arts, there is an expression:

You have to go slow to go fast.

At face value, this seems to be a paradox. But what is not immediately obvious is the time dimension, the connection between habit and performance. The military version removes the mystery, and puts that connection front-and-center:

Slow is smooth; smooth is fast.

While practicing some new movement — like hitting a tennis backhand, or executing a spinning back kick — you should start slowly, and familiarize yourself with the movement, the stance, the follow-through, aiming to achieve a smooth transition through the movement. Only then, when you can be smooth while performing the movement, should you start to speed up. Once you have mastered being smooth, only then can you become fast.

Building Your Muscle Memory for Decision-Making 

In the realm of decision-making, it would be great to be able to make good decisions quickly. But first, we need to make good decisions smoothly — following patterns that have been made habit through practice — and only then can decisions be made quickly. But, as in martial arts, you should not value speed over effectiveness. To deflect a blow, a karate master will push the opponent’s arm only as much and so fast as is needed, and no more. Just fast enough, and no faster.

Similarly, we should make decisions at a pace that leads to good decisions, and no faster.

So, what are the habits of decision-making that we should be practicing in advance of making critical decisions? How can we slowly ramp up the skills that make decision-making smooth so that decision-making can become fast enough?

Let’s look at two ways to overcome common barriers to good decision-making and see how slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.

Stay Open as Long as Possible

The human mind is ‘predictably irrational’ as Daniel Ariely wrote, although his focus was on how individuals make decisions about everyday choices. But his fundamental point is that the way we evaluate many choices really doesn’t make sense when looked at objectively. Moreover,

"We are not only irrational, but predictably irrational—that our irrationality happens the same way, again and again. Whether we are acting as consumers, businesspeople, or policy makers, understanding how we are predictably irrational provides a starting point for improving our decision making and changing the way we live for the better."

One of the ways that we are predictably irrational forms a central pillar of behavior economics: we jump to conclusions, based on our emotions, and then create stories — including facts, figures and other evidence — to justify the decisions we have made. As Daniel Kahneman characterized it, in "Thinking, Fast and Slow,"

"Jumping to conclusions is efficient if the conclusions are likely to be correct and the costs of an occasional mistake acceptable. Jumping to conclusions is risky when the situation is unfamiliar, the stakes are high and there is no time to collect more information."

So, for the class of problems that are low stakes, sure, go with your gut. Picking eggshell paint instead of sage for your office is not a big risk. But the decision to buy one house instead of a different one in the next town, well, that’s high stakes. It is important to warrant gathering more information.

And here we get to the first barrier: our biased brains want to make the necessary decision as quickly as possible. As Pronita Mehrotra, Anu Arora and Sandeep Krishnamurthy lay it out, in the context of innovation:

"Trying to resolve things too quickly, especially for complex problems, is detrimental to innovation because you fall prey to premature closure. Resistance to premature closure — a key aspect of creativity — is our ability to keep an open mind when we already have a potential solution. Some of the best solutions don’t come in the initial meeting or two, but after a longer incubation period."

To fool our foolish brains, we need to actively say -- and act -- that the process of deciding is open as long as more information, more ‘incubation’ of ideas, and more looking at alternatives is possible.

"Instead: To avoid premature closure, teams should arrive at an 'almost final' decision and then intentionally delay action in favor of additional incubation time. During this time, everyone should commit to thinking about the problem and sharing their ideas. If the team can’t find a better approach during the incubation period, they should proceed with their original solution."

Daniel Kahneman characterizes this tension as the struggle between 'thinking fast and slow.' Thinking fast, or 'System 1' thinking is quick, instinctive and emotional, while thinking slow, or 'System 2' thinking is slower, more deliberative and more logical. The trick is to stave off the mind’s eagerness to be quick, authoritative and wrong.

The trick is to stave off the mind’s eagerness to be quick, authoritative and wrong.

One glaring and common snare that System 1 likes to use is the conjunction fallacy, where a complex problem is treated as if it is a simpler and well-understood problem, with potentially terrible results.

How can we avoid these snares? First, accept that we need to take active steps to sidestep System 1 thinking when confronted with complex issues.

One very productive approach is to establish a well-defined series of questions that should be addressed when confronted by complex problems. These can be thought of as choice structures.

Read Part One of the Series: Deciding How to Decide

Establish Choice Structures Before Critical Decisions Are Needed

There are ‘choice structures’ that can be used to channel decision-making into better paths. A choice structure can be thought of as a technique to manage the complexities, processes, or inputs and outputs related to an identified decision to be made. Perhaps the simplest example are checklists, which require the user to check each time in the list, like an airplane pilot determining the airworthiness of a plane item by item, or an intensive care nurse running through a mandated series of checks on a patient’s status.

Use Company Principles to Help

Doing the work to determine priorities for a company's principles helps decision-making, but you'll want to lay those principles out first. Don't do this in the context of a specific decision, just as a hospital establishes these rules in advance for an intensive care nurse. (Another example of slow is smooth; smooth is fast.)

For example, the company should take the time to build 'even over' statements that can set context for decision-making, and avoid unexamined premises (the dark aspect of company culture).

        — Local clients even over global clients

        — Employees' wellbeing even over customer satisfaction

        — Customer satisfaction even over profits

With these principles in place, a store manager can make the decision to overnight mail a purchase to a customer who has an emergency, since the manager knows that customer satisfaction is more important than the profits from a single transaction.

Read Part Two of the Series: Who Makes the Decision?

Use Meta Questions to Set Context

Cheryl Strauss Einhorn, in "11 Myths About Decision-Making," details nearly a dozen ways that people trivialize and oversimplify the myriad contending problems underlying human reasoning than conspire to make us bad at decisions. I will cut to the bottom line (although the list makes for good reading):

"Underlying these myths are three common and popular ideas that don’t serve us well:

"First, as busy people, we don’t need to invest time to make good decisions. Second, we are rational human beings, able to thoughtfully solve thorny and high-stakes problems in our heads. Third, decision-making is personal and doesn’t need to involve anyone else.

"All three of these assumptions are false — and problematic for clear thinking and analysis. We are not computers. We are social beings who operate in community. We need time for reflection, an ability to confront unconscious biases or to consider the bigger picture."

Einhorn echoes other researchers in arguing that better decision-making requires slowing down:

"One way to combat these biases is to put a speed bump in our thinking — a strategic stop to give us time to pause, to see the whole picture, and to reflect on what we’re experiencing. Slowing down can help improve efficacy by steering us away from our reliance on these decision-making myths and reflexive behaviors."

Einhorn goes on to provide a list of five meta-questions that people should ask to hone in on the context of the decision, and other considerations that should be examined:

  1. Which decision-making myths am I relying on to make this decision?
  2. How will this decision [impact other] goals?
  3. Are my feelings related to this decision based on what’s actually happening or do they reflect my learned patterns of behavior?
  4. What information is out there in the world that could help me make this decision better?
  5. How can I better understand the perceptions and perspectives of others involved in the decision?

Decision-Making Is Circular

One additional brake on deciding too fast is to accept that decision-making is a circular process. One of Einhorn’s myths is that decision-making is linear. But, she counters with this:

"In fact, good decision-making is circular; it needs a feedback loop as we gather information and analyze it and our thinking. At times we need to go back to find information we’ve glossed over, gather new information, or conduct a different kind of analysis."

All of these insights support the original idea: you have to go slow to go fast. But now, the full interpretation is this: you need to lay a groundwork of patterns around making decisions so that when the time comes, the right questions are asked, premature closure is avoided, and we make decisions that line up with the company’s principles.

About the Author

Stowe Boyd's calling is the ecology of work and the anthropology of the future. He also writes extensively about work technologies.


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