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on December 1, 2001
Traditional decision making models, according to Gary Klein, are built in academia, studied in labs where the circumstances are carefully controlled, and the test subject unfamiliar with the material. Decision making in the real world is something altogether different.
According to traditional decision making models, first you gather data, then you compile and compare options and decide on a course of action. Studying fire commanders, officers in the military, chess players, and many others in high pressured decision making positions, Klein came to the conclusion that you are more likely to come up with one course of action, run through it mentally to look for flaws. If you don't find any flaws in your model, you act on it, if you do find flaws, you do come up with another possible course of action, but you never compare two options, weighing the pros and cons of each. You simply don't have the time or energy.
Time pressure doesn't just apply to fire commanders and military leaders. It seems that this model holds up to people working under a deadlines that are weeks or months away as well.
Klein calls this the "Recognition Primed" decision making model (RPD). In essence, you compare quickly (and often unconsciously) the situation you're in with a sort of master story of previous situations you've been in. You can then recognize features that are analagous to, or different from, these earlier experiences, allowing you to form accurate mental models and intuit courses of action.
Because of this, experience is extremely important in the decision makin process. If you do not have past experience to draw from, you are more likely to fall back on the traditional decision making models - gathering data and options and weighing them. The more experienced you are, the more clearly you can see a situation for what it is and act quickly. Therefore, training should be geared not towards imparting knowledge, but towards bringing people up to speed and imparting experience. Storytelling as a great way to pass on experience, drills and simulations are also valuable.
In chapter 13, where most books are winding down and getting repetitive, Klein describes "considerations for communicating intent." This chapter, entitled The Power to Read Minds, Klein tells us that giving a laundry list of instructions can be detrimental. It is important that we communicate intent. What we want, why we want it, what considerations we took into account in coming to these conclusions, an image of the desired end state, important decision points and possible obstacles along the way. There's another point or two, but I don't recall offhand.
It may seem obvious, but if these things haven't been clearly communicated, each person will have their own interpretation of their instructions, or even worse, have no understanding of the situation and goals at all and be unable to act if unexpected circumstances should arise. If you clearly communicate intent, people should be able to improvise to get to the end state rather than being stuck trying to figure out your intent based on your instructions. It's a real time saver too because you don't have to think of every contingency and plan for it. You simply have to ensure everyone understands your intent.
This chapter has been especially helpful to me. In the week or so since I've read it, I've used it to speed up meetings, ensuring that everyone is on the same page and has the same understanding of the situation. I've also used it to put together formal proposals, ensuring the client gets what they want.
In a meeting recently, when I saw that everyone was coming up with ideas that conflicted with each other, I asked the meeting leader (in different words) "what is it you're trying to accomplish? what is the end state you envision? what obstacles do you see to us getting there?" Things she had surely taken into consideration, but had not communicated clearly to us.
While everyone else was weighing the options she laid out, stuck on "following instructions," I proposed something she hadn't though of. It was in line with her goals and within the constraints we were given, but not one of the options she thought of, and unlike anything we'd done before. Because I understood the situation clearly I was able to think "outside the box" to come up with a solution. She loved my proposal and the focus of the meeting changed immediately to methods for putting my plan into action.
Reading this lucid and intelligent account of the "Recognition Primed" decision making model lays a good groundwork for decision making, and we all make decisions. It doesn't try to tell you how to make decisions, it simply describes how they are made. Beyond just decision making, the chapters for communcating intent, and the team mind have been real eye openers as well. Each chapter has something to offer, and while the book builds on itself, once you've read it, you can (and will) jump around and re-read chapters or sections that are important to you. A well labelled table of contents and index are included to quickly help you find information.
I found it highly readable, well put together, and extremely insightful. Though the tools it gives me lay more in the experience of reading it than the information imparted, I find myself quoting this book constantly, or referring back to it. I'm tempted to buy a second copy for my home (I keep my copy on my office bookshelf). I recommend it to everyone who takes an interest in learning about decision making in the real world.