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Mental Simulations and Other Ways to Make Better Decisions

If asked how you make decisions, you might say it depends on the kind of decision and how quickly you need to decide. Do you follow a formalized process or framework for making decisions? Probably not. Although many of us are familiar with the classic decision-making process of understanding the problem, identifying and evaluating alternatives, and then choosing the alternative with the highest rating, we usually don’t go through all these steps. Instead, we use a method that seems appropriate, relying on past experience, information we regard as critical and other people’s opinions.

What makes a good decision maker?

Good decision makers have lots of experience. They are experts who have been in similar situations before. They know what cues to look for, are able to recognize patterns and decide how to respond quickly. Their decision-making is fast and intuitive because they can draw on prior analytic experience. They can make what Malcolm Gladwell calls a blink decision. According to researcher Gary Klein, it’s the novices who need to compare different alternatives in order to solve a problem.

Klein interviewed veteran firefighters in order to understand how they make decisions. Rather than outline all possible alternatives, expert firefighters quickly come up with a plan of action and then assess whether or not it will work. Klein found that, over time, firefighters develop a mental catalog of different types of fires and how they should react to them. Expert firefighters subconsciously categorize fires in their mental catalog according to the best response.

What can we do to make better decisions?

According to Gary Klein, mental simulations are effective for helping people get past the beginner stage and build a rich knowledge-base to draw on for future decisions. To run a mental simulation, we need to project ourselves into the future and imagine that we have already made the decision and are watching the consequences unfold in our inner eye. This model of decision making is called Recognition-primed decision (RPD).

Using mental simulations on projects

One of the simulations that Klein recommends doing at the beginning of a project is called a “premortem.” This is how it works: the project leader asks the team to look six months into the future and imagine that the project they are currently planning has failed. Everyone writes down reasons why they think the project derailed. Afterwards, people share their reasons for failure and discuss appropriate adjustments to the plan.

In the context of mental simulation, people feel secure and are more willing to share what they really think about the project. Experience shows that people are otherwise reluctant to raise issues or concerns during the planning phase. Nobody wants to appear pessimistic about a new project. Visualizing a list of potential problems helps everyone avoid the overconfidence that typically plagues new projects in the initiation and planning phases. It also helps the team think of ways to overcome stumbling blocks. As an added bonus, people build their repertoire of pattern recognition skills which will help them become better decision makers on future projects.

Computer simulations can also help project managers and teams practice decision-making by confronting them with typical scenarios faced on projects. Through the simulation, project managers accumulate experiences in a safe environment-without risk to the project!

What else will help?

What else will help you build your knowledge and experience base? Here are some things to consider:

  • When thinking about an issue or opportunity, write down your thoughts. Writing helps us focus. My motto is: “You need to write to think.”
  • Before tackling a new decision, ask yourself the following questions:
    • How urgent is the decision? By when do I need to decide?
    • Should the decision be made alone or in a group?
    • Who else should be involved in making this decision?
    • How much effort should be spent on the decision?
    • Can I draw from experiences that I or someone else has had in the past?
    • What are my biases and limitations in making this decision?
  • Experiment with different formats. Consider a simple list of pros and contras. Use a table format to note and evaluate alternatives.
  • Start a list of people you can draw on for advice. Identify the right person to talk to. We all need a sounding board from time to time.
  • Identify relevant sources of information, data, and past experience. For example, make a list of similar projects and the names of project managers.
  • If time permits, let information you collect settle for a day or two before acting on it, allowing time for incubation and reflection.
  • After you have made a decision, reflect on the decision-making process. What was effective and what was not?
Photo Credit: Harry Brignull

Additional Resources

Information by or about Gary Klein and his research

Breen, Bill. What’s Your Intuition? Fast Company, Vol. 38, 2000. Article on Gary Klein in Fast Company.

Klein, Gary. Performing a Project Premortem. Harvard Business Review, Sept. 2007, pp. 18-19.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Back Bay Books, 2007.  See especially the discussion of Klein’s work in the chapter “Paul van Riper’s Big Victory”.

Books by Gary Klein

Klein, Gary. Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. MIT Press, 1999.

Klein, Gary. The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work. Broadway Business, 2004.

Useful guide to the classical decision making process:

Hammond, John S., Ralph L. Keeney and Howard Raiffa. Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions. Broadway, 2002.

Claxus is an international training & consulting firm based in Zurich, Switzerland. We are powered by an international network of experts in business leadership, communication and change management.


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