Business Brains

'Snap' decisions may be just as effective as well-informed decisions

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My recent post on "PowerPoint culture" -- in which some observers wonder if managers are missing things by relying too much on PowerPoint slides -- g...

My recent post on "PowerPoint culture" -- in which some observers wonder if managers are missing things by relying too much on PowerPoint slides -- got some interesting feedback. One reader pointed to an intriguing analysis of NASA's Columbia shuttle disaster of 2003, which suggests that PowerPoint culture may have contributed to the accident by employing bullet formats that "reinforced the hierarchical filtering and biases of the NASA bureaucracy during the crucial period when the Columbia was damaged but still functioning." A better alternative, the report suggests, would have been a simple Word document that allows for more interaction between viewpoints -- editing, adding images and notations, and so forth.

Which confirms that the more information and data you have around you at the time you make your decision, the better the decision, right?

However, another reader says he/she sees "no evidence to validate the concern" that " decisions made today based on PowerPoint are inferior to decisions made prior." The reader suggests that perhaps PowerPoint has improved our collective thought processes. "Why is the there an assumption that the way it's always been done is the right way? Maybe now we're more efficient and making just as good (or better!) decisions."

Which got me to thinking about a book I read a couple of years back, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell had a few things to say about snap decision-making. That is, there is conclusive proof that snap decisions tend to be just as spot-on, or even more so, than decisions based on piles of data. Sometimes having too much information results in "paralysis by analysis."

Gladwell describes an elaborate Pentagon exercise, in which two teams -- Blue Team and Red Team -- were pitted against each other in a mock battle in the Persian Gulf. The Blue Team had a huge arsenal of information continually being made available to it, while the Red Team operated on a more ad-hoc fashion, leaving decisions up to local commanders to do what they thought best in given situations.

Red Team: Not overloaded with irrelevant information. "Meetings were brief. Communication between headquarters and the commanders in the field were limited."

Blue Team: "Blue Team was gorging on information. They had a database, they boasted, with 40,000 separate entries in it. In front of them was the CROP -- a huge screen showing the field of combat in real time. Experts from every conceivable corner of the U.S. Government were at their service... They were the beneficiaries of a rigorous ongoing series of analyses of what they're opponent's next moves might be."

The Red Team prevailed in the exercise. Gladwell summed it up with a quote from a military commander: "Did it matter that the Blue Team was many times the size of the Red Team? ...It's like Gulliver's Travels... The big giant is tied down by those little rules and regulations and procedures. And the little guy? He just runs around and does what he wants."

Another interesting example of decision making under duress is at the emergency room of Cook County Hospital in Chicago. Here, as Gladwell illustrated, emergency room teams were hamstrung by their attempts to garner huge volumes of information, in a short timeframe, to determine the right course of treatment for distressed patients suffering from chest pains. The unit only had eight beds. Most incidents of chest pains are not serious. When is further testing called for? Physicians would ponder every option.

The hospital ER moved, over a two-year period, to a faster, simpler "decision tree" that looked at key symptoms and responses. The ER saw a 70-percent rise in successful diagnoses, treatments, and outcomes for chest pain treatments.

The lessons from the Pentagon and Cook County Hospital experiences? As Gladwell wrote:

"We take it, as a given, that the more information decision makers have, the better off they are... All that extra information isn't actually an advantage at all; in fact, you need to know very little to find the underlying signature of a complex phenomenon."

Business intelligence and analytics is a great advancement for enterprises. However, in the process, decision makers get overloaded with information and data. A smart approach is to find ways to filter and simplify the information streaming to decision makers, thereby reducing the incidence of paralysis by analysis. Maybe there is a rationale for PowerPoint after all.

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure