A couple of years ago, I was sitting in a high school principal’s office, and she was bemoaning the state of instruction in her school. “The problem,” she said, “is that teachers don’t plan.” First decision point: I did not ask her to clarify how she knew that that was the problem. “So I’m going to start telling them to turn in their lesson plans.” Second decision point: I chose to engage this time, and asked her how she was going to respond if they turned in their plans but she didn’t think they were any good? I could have asked many different questions, but that one was decent enough. She was taken aback, and, to her credit, immediately got the implication: she was making the assumption that the solution to the problem was lack of planning, but what if they didn’t know how to plan in the first place? Or what if they were able to plan, and she didn’t value the plans? She had to really think through her choices.
This story could be the vignette for several possible leadership lessons, but the point I’m making here is that that high school principal’s decision-making process was not any worse than average. Because the research tells us that we are generally not very good decision makers. That’s a big theme in the Coaching Letter. Because, frankly, I am often in the position of challenging people’s decision-making processes, and I would much rather be dealing with that as a normal part of the messiness that leaders have to deal with rather than people thinking that I’m impugning their intelligence.
For example, here is a snippet from a recent story from the New York Times that features the work of Paul Nutt:
Only 15 percent of the decisions he studied involved a stage where the decision makers actively sought out a new option beyond the initial choices on the table. In a later study, he found that only 29 percent of organizational decision makers contemplated more than one alternative… This turns out to be a bad strategy. Over the years, Professor Nutt and other researchers have demonstrated a strong correlation between the number of alternatives deliberated and the ultimate success of the decision itself. In one of his studies, Professor Nutt found that participates who considered only one alternative ultimately judged their decision a failure more than 50 percent of the time, while decisions that involved contemplating at least two alternatives were felt to be successes two-thirds of the time.
Alternatively, read this article in The Atlantic about the influence of cognitive biases on our decision-making skills.
Hence the decision to make a book about decision-making the next book in our book club: Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke. It’s a great read, and I think you will find it extremely useful. And it was written by a female cognitive psychologist who is also a professional poker player—what could possibly be better?
So: buy the book, available in Kindle, Audible, or good old-fashioned print. Read the book. And the book discussion on Google+ goes live on Veterans Day (November 12) and runs through Thanksgiving (November 22). As I wrote last week, our first book choice reached a lot of people, and so I’m hoping that this time around, as we apply lessons learned from our debut, we can have even more people reading the book and participating in the discussion. Stay tuned.
Here’s the link to the Google+ community—nothing there yet except a link to the book on Amazon: https://plus.google.com/communities/111021940531290896490?sqinv=QkYtdjktNi11VzczRlZrd2lGZU9pd2V1eFF2Vl93 And if you want to get reminders about the book club, click here and enter your name—thanks!
Happy reading! I’m excited about this and look forward to many great conversations. Yours, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106