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You’re sitting in a meeting and someone asks the inevitable: “Has a decision been made on that yet?” The person responsible groans internally and then delivers their verdict with as much confidence as they can muster, the pros and cons still racing through their brain. Does it have to be so difficult? Discover Why good business decisions require time-travel and two (or three) heads.

In my experience working with hundreds of senior managers, decision-making is a challenge that trips them up more than any other element of their role. And it’s not a small part of their job either: think of all the team and 1:1 meetings and conversations that happen in the workplace every day. Almost every one of those interactions requires a decision – ouch. But imagine a future where we could make better decisions, more quickly and more easily?

We tend to ‘teach’ decision making on a practical level, with ‘tried and tested’ diagrams and models and examine it within an organisational context. Yet managers still come to me for help. I believe that, instead of models, we need to understand how our brains make decisions and work from the inside out. I sought the expertise of Patricia Riddell, Professor of Applied Neuroscience (PR) who provided me with a new way of thinking about decision making. One that puts humility at its core, unveils how we can use memory to time-travel (more on that later), and helps managers better utilise talent and promote engagement via decision making.

Why traditional decision making isn’t working

When a decision needs to be made or a problem solved, we generally refer ‘up’ to a more senior person. This top-down decision-making places the responsibility for coming up with a solution on one person. PR believes that the flaw in this is that top-down decision-making assumes that the person at the top has all the information they need to make a decision. This is rarely the case. And even if they do, placing ownership of all necessary information in the hands of one person means that no-one else can make a decision if they need to.

This poses a number of problems:

  • The organisation faces stalled decisions and risks losing productivity (and money) if the information holder/decision-maker leaves or is unavailable
  • People who are equally capable of making decisions and/or who may have great ideas or information to contribute are ignored and their morale suffers
  • The organisation is less agile and risks missing important opportunities while it waits for one person to make a decision
  • Decisions tend to be more reactive as managers feel pressured to make multiple decisions at the same time with insufficient information
  • So how can we re-frame the way decisions are made in organisations so that everybody can make an equally good decision, and so that managers can make the best possible decisions without struggling? By understanding and working with our brains.

How our brain works when we make a decision

Unsurprisingly, decision-making is an extremely complex process. But for managers, it’s most important to understand the following.

When making a decision where we don’t have the exact information we need ready to hand, our brain uses an attention network to gather whatever information is easily available. While sometimes this works (almost by accident), it doesn’t always result in good strategic decisions.

PR explained: “One of the things we know is that there’s an attention network that’s looking for information on which to base decisions. And if it’s got no other information – such as from previous, directly relevant experiences, or data gathered specifically to answer the question – it will look for two things: the thing that’s most salient in the moment – so what information can I get just by looking at my environment and picking it up from that – or the thing that’s novel and shiny. So, we look for novelty and we notice differences.”

While this activity can lead to innovative decisions, more often than not it leads to ‘fire-fighting’ issues without understanding how the solution works towards a greater goal.

Decision-making works best when our decisions are driven by our goals and values. Decisions differ between people when their goals and values don’t align.

PR explained that we assess the value of particular options when making a decision in the orbital frontal cortex. This will include information about the value of the option in the real world (for instance, the monetary value), the amount of effort it will take to achieve each option, and also how this relates to our own and/or our organisation’s values (e.g. sense of fairness, moral or ethical issues etc.).

PR pointed out that when we talk about the organisational values we use to drive decision making, these are seldom the ones that HR put up on the wall: they are the lived values that everyone shares and acts on in the workplace.

“So, if you can have values and goals that everybody understands and everybody lives by, then anybody is likely to make a very similar decision in any situation. And that might allow a busy manager to delegate more. To trust that they can delegate and get the same kind of decision-making done as they would themselves, think of the time that would free up for a busy leader? There’s real value in knowing and communicating your organisational values,” PR said.

Our memory exists so that we can time-travel and construct the best possible futures. This time-travel informs the decisions we make today.

PR explained that neuroscientists have carried out many research studies that have investigated memory and how it works. We now have a solid understanding of the processes that allow us to store memories that are autobiographical – they’re ours, we’re in them, and we can relive and re-experience the moment as we remember them.

PR believes that it’s better to ask ‘why’ we have a memory than ‘what’ memory is: “When we think about memory we always think that the main goal is to record the past. If that were the case we’d all have internal video recorders so that every detail is captured. But that’s not what we’ve got. The mechanisms we use to remember the memory of the past – the way that we record information – is to code the specific details about events in our lives that make them unique. And then we code the things that are common to all of the times that particular experience happens. If you remember a day at school you’ll re-construct the common events that happened most school days (schematic events), and then add in the specific things that happened to you on a particular day (the autobiographic components) in order to recall a particular memory,” she said.

“Both the autobiographical components of memory and the more schematic, the more global components, of memory are actually needed to create futures…We use our experience of the past to create better futures,” PR said. In an organisational sense, we use our memory to plan ahead and to envision what the outcome of a particular decision might be.

No one brain can possibly hold all of the information needed to make a perfect decision (even if all of this information does exist).

PR explained that each person pays attention to different things when they’re remembering the past. “They’ll have viewed the world through a different set of filters and that means that everybody’s experience is incredibly rich because it is different from yours. There’s a good reason to listen to people – even people that you think have had the same sorts of experiences as you, or were with you at a particular time because they will have focussed on slightly different things. So, this creates a wider diversity of ideas that are available to you as a leader,” she said.

It’s also important to acknowledge that the information that is accessible to you when you create new futures is what you’ve ‘attended to’, or coded, the best. Knowing this allows you to begin to notice what it is that you pay attention to and, more critically, what blind spots you have. Armed with this knowledge, you can learn to pick up information that would have been in a blind spot, allowing you to create better futures. “Because our preconstruction – our travel into the future – is so dependent on what we’ve done in the past, being really good at coding the past becomes highly important,” PR said.

Despite this, single-brain decision-making is still prevalent thanks to the fact that people progress in their careers on the basis of having a superior level of knowledge about their job and industry. They’ve been trained to think that being a leader at the top means knowing absolutely everything, but that is neurologically and experientially impossible. You then find charismatic managers using their personality to provide certainty and a clear path forward when it’s far more complex than anyone realises. “Managers think they have to come into an organisation to be the hero and make things happen. It’s totally unreasonable. We need them to know that it’s ok for leaders not to know,” PR assures.

The keys to making better decisions

  1. Recognise how our brains work and educate managers
    Decision-making isn’t always the simple linear process we are taught to expect it to be. Rather than fighting to make decisions using models, enlist the help of a neuroscientist to help decision-makers understand how their brains work and to give them the confidence to make decisions.
  2. Share goals and values
    Managers need to trust that others can make a similar decision before they delegate. By ensuring that their team share the same values and goals, they can lighten their decision-making load and engage their staff at the same time.
  3. Have the humility to time-travel with others
    We now understand that one brain can’t possibly hold all the information necessary to make a perfect decision, that each brain records information differently from others, and the brain uses attention networks to gather information to fill in gaps (innovative, but not terribly strategic). It makes sense then that two, or more, heads really are better than one and time-travelling to uncertain futures shouldn’t be a solo effort.

PR elucidated: “So instead of trusting one leader, it would be great to have managers that have a little more humility and that are prepared to reach out and say ‘Well let’s see how many different aspects of this we can consider by talking to a number of different people with different viewpoints on this’. I think understanding the distributed nature of knowledge and the way that we remember, and the way that we use what we remember to create possible futures really points to the idea of distributed, rather than hierarchical, leadership. This seems to be the only way forward given the complexity of decisions leaders have to make.”

Just imagine what that could look like.