Three words – Discernment – Extrapolation – Inference

My wife and I have been managing people for more than thirty years – she in higher education and I in a small business. As a result, we are always chatting over dinner about the actions and decisions of those around us. Over time, the same three words have continued to come up in our conversations – discernment, extrapolation and inference. Effective decision makers learn to discern the context and complexity of situations, extrapolate the possible outcomes of the choices they make and use inference to determine the nuances of various questions and dilemmas they face.

All that may sound like a mouthful! But it comes down to three simple words – figure it out. They’ve learned to do so confidently, over the course of a lifetime. So why does it seem so difficult for many people to make decisions in today’s workplace and elsewhere? While many of us could write a book about all the contributing factors, most of it comes down to the three words that form the title of this post:

Discernment, in its essence is a combination of two factors – curiosity and reflection. Digital technology has increasingly compelled us to be menu-driven thinkers. Want to know something? Google it, but limit your curiosity to the first page of links, as 96% of users do. Want to know more about politics, social issues and current events? Look at whatever’s trending on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. Want to drill down? Read the 200 word “analyses” on CNN, MSNBC or Fox. In other words, become a “snippet thinker” by limiting your knowledge to the information instantly and persistently available. The best decision makers search outside the screen and develop an ever-evolving depth of knowledge from which they can draw to make informed decisions.

Extrapolation is, in essence, asking “what if?” and doing so out to the third and fourth step. It is rare that the result of any decision of consequence ends at the first choice. There are always influences and stakeholders in play. The best decision makers consider the possible consequences of what could happen if they attempt a variety of approaches. In other words, they construct scenarios and compare possible reactions to what they might do. While these are certainly not fail-safe, this planning improves their chances of having a successful outcome.

Inference is drawing conclusions based on the data you have gathered, coupled with your reasoning. Over time, much of this is based on intuition. The more decisions you make of a similar kind, the more confident you feel doing so and the “smarter” your decisions tend to be. This is because of the brain’s ability to match patterns, as in “this is just like . . . “ Interestingly, the biggest challenge with using intuition and inference developing the confidence to use it. The best decision makers have learned to balance intuition and analysis and trust their skills in doing so.

So, what can you do to compel those you supervise to spend more time discerning, extrapolating and inferring when navigating the week’s challenges? How about yourself?

Number one, tell them to “figure it out” a lot more that you already do.

Number two, process their decisions. Sit down with each person periodically and critical their decisions with them. Some may resist at first. In fact, a couple might even be indignant. But if you persevere, they will adjust and even embrace the opportunity to improve their decision making.

Number three, reinforce their growth. The best decision makers are students of failure. They make a practice of reflecting on outcomes and embracing opportunities to share insights with peers. The more you can do to foster this kind of atmosphere within the workplace, the more everyone will benefit personally and professionally.

So, what are you waiting for?