How Smart People Learn from Their Decisions

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Talk to those with military experience about missions and decisions and they’ll refer to the after-action reports, dutifully completed after every event. The purpose, of course, is to learn from what took place. What worked? What didn’t work? What did they need that they didn’t have? What did they carry that seemed unnecessary? And so on. Many other government agencies and corporations now emulate this practice.

I’ve seen a similar pattern in those I’ve interviewed over time who seem to be the best decision makers in their environments. Upon the resolution of a project or event in which they have played a significant role, these individuals take the time to evaluate what happened and codify what they’ve learned. In the hustle of today’s busy world, this is not always easy. But they find it essential to their professional growth. Each one has a bit of a different approach. Some are more formal than others. Each one, however, maintains the discipline to do it.

The four elements each one includes are as follows: 1) They allot the time. They don’t wait for the time to open up. It never will. Sometimes they take a few minutes. Sometimes this exercise consumes an hour or more. But they get it done. 2) They seek peace and quiet. Rather than trying to check this off while driving home, they find a place where they won’t be distracted. One has told me about a coffee shop where she can sit anonymously and concentrate. Another has told me he hides in the study carrels at the local library. In almost all cases, these individuals physically remove themselves from the work environment.

3) They keep a log dedicated to this exercise, which allows them to periodically review what they’re learning. Typically, this is a notebook or a bound diary which has the feel of being more formal and organized than jotted notes. 4) They discuss their insights with a few people they trust for both validation and different perspectives. As one person put it, “Sometimes you’re too close to the situation to realize what you’ve really learned. It takes someone else to point out the nuances.”

This is not rocket science. It does, however, require consistency, discipline and an openness to reflecting on even the most uncomfortable experiences. But this is another way the best decision makers thrive.

Reflection and Smart Decision Making

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In his latest book, The Glass Cage, author Nicholas Carr reflects on technology’s impact on the meaning people place on their work once computers begin to assist them. Some embrace the opportunity to learn something new and enjoy relief from repetitive tasks. Others fear this assistance spells the beginning of the end for their positions. But few take a step back to look at this assistance in perspective. If they did, they might learn something about their work and themselves

Those who embrace the technology, might find that along with learning new skills, they can broaden their horizons and employment options. Those who immediately fear for their jobs, might discover their new technology-based skills provide them with opportunities as well. Rather than dwelling on what’s lost, they can dwell on what’s to be gained.

But this is not just about technology. Most of us seem to be in a break-neck rush to finish the job these days. Clear the emails. Accomplish the task. Check the box. Finish the report. Rather than taking time to reflect on what we’re doing, we simply count the number of things completed before rushing home to take on a different set. Then we’re surprised when the circumstances change in a way not to our liking.

Is it any wonder we sometimes lament that our decision making suffers because of this treadmill thinking? We all need to be vigilant about keeping the role of our work in perspective. It is too easy these days to sacrifice our perspective on the altar of getting things done, even if that means anything.

So here’s a way to begin transitioning off the treadmill. Once a month, steal away for 30 minutes or so and ask yourself these three questions:

Which of my habits and behaviors no longer serve me well in making decisions?

How can I do a better job of prioritizing and delegating?

How can I go about making more room for the decision making that requires time and consideration?

Record these thoughts and inspirations some place. Develop a running diary if you wish. Don’t do this with your smart phone in hand or in your office. Hide away someplace where the distractions can’t find you. Don’t view this exercise as a chore, but rather an escape. Daydream a little. Look at past reflections and see how you and the job are evolving. Consider your options.

Decision Making and Convenience

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Last week, I attended a chamber event. The featured speaker owns a local coffee roasting company. He told us that until three months ago he had resisted going into the so-called “K-Cup” market. K-Cups are the containers that fit into the one-cup coffee brewers made by the Keurig company. He said, “Some of my customers were balking at paying $12-14 per pound. Why would they pay so much more for a fad like that?” But then he discovered that fifty percent of the coffee in today’s supermarkets is being sold in this format. He said, “Now I am selling my coffee in K-Cups at the equivalent of $35 a pound. Who knew?”

If supermarkets were forced to post the price per pound over the coffee in their stores, K-Cup sales might drop through the floor. But the average person doesn’t stop for a minute to calculate the real cost of most things before making a decision. So how much is convenience worth? That depends. There are certainly times when paying more for convenience reflects thoughtful decision making. At other times, the choice of convenience is the result of impatience, inattentiveness or, dare I say, laziness.

So here’s an easy experiment: Make a list of ten conveniences you pay extra for regularly. These might include Starbucks in the morning, weekly lawn mowing, premium car-washing at the gas station and so on. Then choose three and put a pencil to their real cost and benefit. Why? Two reasons: 1) You might discover a convenience that started as a one-time impulse is now costing several hundred dollars per year. 2) With will the “life-saving” conveniences being pressed on us through daily advertising, it’s just good practice to take a step back periodically to re-evaluate priorities.

A Lack of Information But a Strong Opinion

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I was conversing with a colleague about his adult daughter. He explained a debate they had had about a certain social issue. While he kept arguing from a broader context, she was focused on the report she had heard on the radio that morning. The more he insisted there was nuance to the issue, the more she focused on the conclusions she had drawn based on two minutes of “news.” They finally agreed to disagree. He paused after describing all this and lamented, “She has a lack of information, but a strong opinion.”

This has made me wonder how many of us suffer from this affliction. We are bombarded with data and viewpoints from sources desired and undesired. There is a good deal of evidence the Millennial generation develops its views of political and social issues based on trending Twitter stories, Facebook posts, and information gathered from conversations with others who do the same. Older generations struggle to digest the constant news feed crawling across the bottom of most TV screens. The stakes are high. We elect policy makers, care for our children, contribute to causes, and make other life altering decisions based on this fire hose of “helpful” insights.

So how do smart decision makers manage this? They take time. They filter. They withhold judgment. In this impatient world, there is an insistent demand to express an immediate opinion because everyone else seems to be doing so. Smart decision makers resist these temptations. They say, “That’s an interesting issue,” or “I don’t know,” or “Let me get back to you.” When they do take a position, it is well organized, cogent, and reflects the larger context. How about you?

Reflect on Making Smarter Decisions

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There’s an old joke that goes, “Lord, give me patience, but please hurry.” As much as that is supposed to be amusing, many of us feel like we’re living it. There’s the boss who says, “Give this some thought, but get back to me with your solution by Noon.” There’s the parent who says, “I know learning takes time. But isn’t there an app that will speed it up?” I have clients say to me, “You know so much, but can you fit it into 45 minutes?” All of this comes down to two keys:

First, the confidence to set boundaries. Notice I didn’t say the ability to set boundaries. We all have that. If you have this confidence, do you exercise it? Deliberately setting aside time to think through significant challenges reduces pressure, stimulates creativity, and invokes curiosity.

If you struggle with confidence, start small. When you go for coffee, take an extra ten minutes to sit down away from the office and reflect on a particular problem. Lunch by yourself once a week, away from your desk, in a place where you can let your mind wander. Say to the boss, “I know you want an immediate answer, but I come up with better solutions when I have a chance to mull things over.” You’ll be surprised how often that works. If it doesn’t, reflect on looking for a new job.

Second, the patience to reflect. The brain works in mysterious ways. Researchers are only now discovering that the best decisions come through reflection. Think back on the best decisions you’ve made in the past few months. Chances are they were the result of patience. I have a colleague who puts significant questions in her “slow cooker.” She’s one of the best decision makers I know. The most creative people I know practice the art of reflection by placing themselves in an environment that encourages curiosity, creativity and a questioning of traditions. They know it takes time and they enjoy the journey. How can you emulate the suggestions above and improve your decision making?