Guest Post: Four Simple Steps to Help Your Team Make Better Decisions
Tactical strategies you can start using today to optimize decision making from machine learning and decision intelligence pioneer Dr. Lorien Pratt.

Have you ever wondered just how many decisions you will make today? In your lifetime? Though difficult to measure, researchers have estimated that the average adult makes anywhere from a few thousand to 35,000 decisions in a single day. While the estimates range tremendously due to the complexity of deciphering between decisions and automatic reflexes, it is undisputed that people make a lot of decisions every single day.

A different way to understand just how active our brains are is to look at a more easily measured metric, the energy consumption of the brain—specifically the amount of glucose and oxygen burned each day. Researchers have found that although the brain accounts for only 2% of adult body weight, it burns roughly 20% of the body’s calories. Those watching The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix will be interested to know that grandmasters in chess can burn up to 6,000 calories per day, which is on par with elite athletes.

We make thousands of decisions each day and our bodies use a disproportionate amount of our energy resources to fuel our brain power. Thanks to advances in behavioral science and neuroimaging technologies, we better understand what is happening under the hood. So how can we leverage our understanding of human physiology, neuroscience, and technology to guide and improve the decision making process for organizations and teams?

To help answer this question, I spoke with Dr. Lorien Pratt, Co-Founder and Chief Scientist at Quantellia, a Silicon Valley consulting firm that has been delivering machine learning solutions to clients, including the Human Genome Project, for over 30 years. Dr. Pratt holds three degrees in computer science and has laid the foundation of the emerging field of Decision Intelligence (DI), a discipline for analyzing chains of cause and effect using artificial intelligence (AI) and decision modeling to visually represent these chains. “Human decision making is one of the largest untapped sustainable resources that we have as a species” says Dr. Pratt. “We live in a hyper connected world that has evolved to this very complex, rapidly-moving place but the way we make decisions as organizations has not evolved to keep up with it. Decision intelligence is what gets us there.”

Step 1: Align around your outcomes.

According to Dr. Lorien Pratt, a decision is not a choice, it’s an action that leads to an outcome and it can be advantageous for organizations and teams to begin the decision making process by first establishing the desired outcomes and then work backwards to determine the actions needed to achieve those outcomes. “I’ve seen the systematic pattern that we tend to forget to align around what we’re trying to achieve,” says Pratt of her the common pitfalls faced by Fortune 50 companies all the way down to startups. “Whether I’m advising somebody on a merger and acquisition strategy, a global transformation project, or agricultural supply chain, the same best practices apply. If I’m trying to get to X and you’re trying to get to Y, and we haven’t said that out loud, it’s a recipe for disaster,” says Pratt. This decision-making framework naturally encourages team collaboration and can be particularly beneficial for organizations that have shifted into working remotely due to disruptions caused by Covid-19.”

Step 2: Brainstorm first, then analyze.

Want to get the most out of your brainstorming session? Use a disciplined approach where the brainstorming and analysis are kept separate to reduce the burden of the cognitive switching. “You’ve only got so much blood in your brain. The blood is either in the creative brainstorming part or the analytical part. It doesn’t work to try to have the blood in both parts at the same time,” says Pratt. Dr. Pratt suggests laying ground rules for brainstorming sessions. Start by brainstorming outcomes, analyze what you came up with, and then move out to brainstorming actions needed to achieve those outcomes. Mounting evidence from the study of mindfulness also highlights the benefits of single-tasking or concentrating on one cognitive activity at a time to use your cognitive ability most efficiently.

Step 3: Draw a model to link actions and outcomes.

After the brainstorming processes, the next step is to transform the text-based information into a visual model. “What’s been systematically missing from the decision making in lots of organizations is drawing a picture of that decision, and then engaging in these alignment exercises where you make sure everybody’s in sync.” If we look to Richard Mayer’s cognitive theory of multimedia learning, Mayer explains that “people learn more deeply from words and pictures than from words alone” and that our brains physically process visual and auditory material through different channels. Each channel has a limited capacity and can only handle a few pieces of information actively at one time. Creating a simple visual representation of a complex decision, also known as a Causal Decision Diagram (CDD), triggers our visual learning channel and transfers the ideas into a decision “blueprint” where they no longer tax our working memory.

Step 4: Invite empathy into your decisions.

Adopting Dr. Pratt’s decision making protocol to generate decision “blueprints” can also introduce empathy into the process. Whether organizations or teams are tasked with making a simple decision with small scale impact to more dynamic and complex decisions that can affect global change, Dr. Pratt explains that using visual models of decisions “takes us out of the small auditory sequential part of our brain and it moves us into the visual-spatial part of our brain. When we do that, we get a thousand times smarter, a thousand times more empathetic, and a thousand times better at collaborating in-person and remotely over the internet.” It can be easy for teams to get trapped into narrow focused thinking aimed toward first order consequences that are easily measured, such as revenue or customer experience, but having a robust decision making protocol with lots of input from diverse team members encourages empathy and prioritizes more intangible value-based outcomes. In a time where organizations are collaborating remotely, empathy can help team members to better understand one another’s perspective which can be vital to the long-term success of any enterprise.

As global leaders, organizations, educational institutions, and individuals continue to navigate challenging decisions in this Covid-19 era, my hope is that stakeholders can collaborate more effectively to connect the dots and make better decisions with fewer unintended consequences. We can’t talk about empathy without mentioning Dr. Brene Brown who says, empathy fuels connection, so here’s to embracing empathy in 2021.

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