Thursday, August 20, 2015

Act First, Think Later

Making quick decisions is often based on a process of learning by action. The learning-by-action mode is adopted when uncertainty (missing information) is coupled with an increased demand for speed, which in turn brings about a greater degree of scarcity of attention.

The following hedge-clipping metaphor, often cited in the literature, illustrates how several cycles of learning by action are employed to cope satisfactorily with missing information, speed, and scarcity of attention.

“The example we shall take is that of a householder facing the ‘problem’ of an overgrown hedge. The central point of this example is that analytic solutions appear highly complex (and possibly only approximate), while a ‘nibbling’ or incremental solution is available, easy, and satisfactory. That is, we emphasize the fact that the final position of a cut branch is a rather complex function of the physical characteristics of the shrub, of the adjoining shrubs, and of the place at which the cut is made. An analytic solution of the problem of where to cut each branch thus requires both extensive well-developed theory (of the cantilever properties of cut branches and of interactions with adjacent cut branches) and extensive data collection (exact dimensions of each branch). In contrast, a strategy of repeated clipping and inspecting requires no such knowledge and rapidly converges on a solution which may be adjusted to any desired degree of fit to the intended solution -- a neatly clipped hedge. Hedge-clipping, then provides a clear example of a decision problem for which a highly reflective strategy is much less satisfactory than a highly active one.” [1] 

Thus, when speed is of the essence and time constraints are paramount, the continuous “nibbling” approach offers two advantages:

·         No demand either for deep problem understanding or extensive data collection and analysis.
·         Hugely reduced cognitive demands on the decision-maker.

The hedge-clipping strategy suggested is an example of the “act first, think later” approach. In this case, action is an uncertainty-reducing device as well as a solution to the problem.[2] Often, uncertainty can be reduced substantially after a few “nibbles.” Once those few iterations of small actions are carried out, uncertainty is reduced to the point where sufficient feedback is collected, allowing the rest of the task to continue with a “think first, act later” approach (that is, a return to the project plan). 

The hedge-clipper is relying heavily on his intuition. Gary Klein, who studied decision making for many years, opens his 2003 book on Intuition at Work with the following story: "Almost two decades ago, I conducted my first research project on decision making, studying firefighters to see how they could make high-risk decisions in just a few seconds despite all the confusion and uncertainty inherent in their work.  I knew that the firefighters wouldn’t make their decisions by systematically comparing all of the possible ways to put out a fire because there wasn’t enough time. I expected that they would only come up with two leading options and compare these to each other. I was wrong. The firefighters, especially the more experienced ones, some with over twenty years of experience, usually just considered a single option. In fact, to hear them describe it, they didn’t really consider anything; they just acted."[3]   

According to Klein, people can make decisions rapidly without conscious awareness or effort as an outcome of their experience. Thus, intuition can be seen as a natural and direct outgrowth of experience. Klein defines intuition as the way we translate our experience into action, as exemplified by the firefighters: “In our interviews with the firefighters, one of the most common statements my research team and I heard was, ‘We don’t make decisions.’ This amazed us because we watched them routinely making very challenging decisions, many with life-or-death implications—and yet they were unaware they were doing it… Our research led us to the conclusion that we are all intuitive decision makers.” [4]

In his article, How to Think with Your Gut, Thomas Stewart reported that: “Today the [U.S. Marine] Corps’s official doctrine reads, ‘The intuitive approach is more appropriate for the vast majority of…  decisions made in the fluid, rapidly changing conditions of war when time and uncertainty are critical factors, and creativity is a desirable trait.’ Conditions, in other words, not unlike those in which many business decisions are made today.” [5]

Back in 1984, when Daniel Isenberg studied managers and executives to see how they solved problems and made decisions, he concluded that executives do not make formal decisions using analytical methods: “Senior managers use intuition in at least five ways.
-          First, they intuitively sense when a problem exists
-          Second, managers rely on intuition to perform well-learned behavior patterns rapidly
-          The third function of intuition is to synthesize isolated bits of data and experience into an integrated picture
-          Fourth, some mangers use intuition as a check… on the results of more rational analysis
-          Fifth, managers can use intuition to bypass in-depth analysis and move rapidly to come up with a plausible solution

Intuition is not the opposite of rationality, nor is it a random process of guessing. Rather, it is based on extensive experience, both in analysis and problem solving and in implementation, and to the extent that the lessons of experience are logical and well founded, then so is the intuition.”[6]

In order to make quick decisions, to Act with Agility, one must accumulate extensive experience.[7] Klein argues that: “There are ways of building a person’s experience base. Experience can be codified as stories and analogues.” Thus, being exposed to a large variety of stories (for example like those presented in this book) can partially compensate for lack of actual experience.[8]

To lead well requires a leader to synthesize lessons learned from experience, intuitive action, and reflection on stories, such as the ones we share in this blog. In addition to the stories shared on this blog, project leaders may be interested in reading the book, Breaking the Code of Project Management, by A. Laufer (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009).

[1] This hedge-clipping metaphor is from T. Connolly and G. Wolf.  1981.  Deciding on Decision Strategies: Towards an Enriched Contingency Model. Proceedings of the Academy of Management Annual Meeting. San Diego, CA: 181-85.   

[2]  H. Mintzberg argues that there are times when thought should precede action and guide it. Other times, however, especially during or immediately after a major unexpected shift in the environment, thought must be bound up with action in an interactive and continuous process. Thus, Mintzberg concludes that: “‘learning’ becomes a better label, and concept, for what happens then is ‘formulation-implementation.’” H. Mintzberg. 1990.  The Design School: Reconsidering the Basic Premises of Strategic Management. Strategic Management Journal 11: 171-95. Weick concluded that: “...we should pay more attention to simultaneity of thought and action and less attention to sequence;” K.E. Weick. 1983.  Managerial Thought in the Context of Action. In The Executive Mind, eds. S. Srivastba and Associates, 242.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  

[3] G. Klein. 2003. Intuition at Work. New York, NY: Doubleday-Currency, xv.

[4] G. Klein. 2003. Intuition at Work. New York, NY: Doubleday-Currency, xv-xvi.

[5]  T. Stewart. 2002. How to Think with Your Gut. Business 2.0, (November):  98-104.

[6]  Daniel Isenberg says: “One implication of acting/thinking cycles is that action is often part of defining the problem, not just implementing the solution.”  See D.J. Isenberg. 1984. How Senior Managers Think. Harvard Business Review 62, (November-December): 80-90.

[7] Indeed, the experience level of the ten on-site construction project managers was high—the mean experience accumulated as project managers was 15 years, and the mean overall experience on the construction site was 21 years. Edward de Bono argues that: “An expert is someone who has succeeded in making decisions and judgments simpler through knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore.”  E. de Bono. 1998. Simplicity.  London, UK: Viking, 22.

[8]  G. Klein. 1998. Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 287. Stories were also recommended as a tool for improving the ad hoc mode of Act with Agility, that is, improvisation. Frank Barrett asks: “What practices and structures can we implement that might emulate what happens when jazz bands improvise?” His first suggestion is: “Boost the processing of information during and after actions are implemented…”  He concludes that diverse stories can improve improvisation capabilities. F.J. Barret. 1998. Creativity and Improvisation in Jazz and Organizations: Implications for Organizational Learning. Organization Science 9, 5 (September-October): 605-22