The Art and Science of Timing Decisions

July 2, 2012 by SAP News 0

Remember Malcolm Gladwell’s book called Blink? Gladwell argued that we should trust our snap judgments, using examples from science, advertising, medicine and music.  These examples showed that spontaneous decisions were as good as, and usually better than, carefully considered ones.

In Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, Frank Partnoy takes the exact opposite point of view.  After interviewing more than 100 experts from different fields and examining several hundred studies, Partnoy claims that most people don’t take enough time to make decisions.  Using a Gladwell-esque style, Partnoy argues that the best decision makers – premier athletes, expert investors, and even popular comedians – hone the ability to wait as long as possible before deciding or acting.

I’m writing this blog  while watching a professional baseball game and the game itself reinforces Partnoy’s claim.  The best hitters are the ones who wait the longest time to make a decision about whether to swing at a pitch.  The swing has been practiced so often it’s mechanical and not the important differentiator. The key to being a good hitter is to gather information about the ball as quickly as possible, so as to leave time to process this information and make a decision on how to swing.  “Ball identification” is analogous to sizing up a situation in business.

In a recent Financial Times article, Partnoy uses a nearly identical example from Wimbledon to explain a parallel situation in the business world.  As he writes:

One of the most surprising aspects of Lehman’s collapse was that the firm’s leaders had tried so hard to understand the problems associated with their own decision-making. In autumn 2005, Lehman’s senior managers hired a group of experts to teach four dozen top executives how to make better decisions. Malcolm Gladwell, who had just published Blink, gave the capstone lecture.

These managers sat for a cutting-edge course on the timing of decisions. Then, they rushed back to their offices and made some of the worst decisions in the history of financial markets. Three years later, their firm was gone.

If Lehman had lived until today, its decision-making course would look radically different. The core message of recent research is the opposite of the one Lehman’s executives learnt in 2005: the longer we can wait, the better. And once we have a sense of how long a decision should take, we generally should delay the moment of decision until the last possible instant. If we have an hour, we should wait 59 minutes before responding. If we have a year, we should wait 364 days. Even if we have just half a second, we should wait as long as we possibly can. As the matches at Wimbledon will illustrate, even milliseconds matter.

Scientific research supports both Gladwell’s claim we should trust our gut assessments and also Partnoy’s claim we should wait until the last possible moment to make a decision. So which one should you do?  The answer, of course, depends on the situation you are in — this is the art of decision making.

But, if you can’t make up your own mind on how quickly to make decisions, my advice can be captured in one word: Wait.

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