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Head vs. Gut: how to decide

Years ago, a friend told me he always makes decisions from his gut — but, only after his head tried to talk him out of it. I always thought there was great wisdom in that approach.

Now we know that everyone makes decisions from his or her gut. Only the wiser among us pause to let our heads try to talk us out of it. More often, we use analysis and discussion to rationalize a decision we’ve already made from our gut.

Working with many CEO’s over the last 15 years, I have learned that most decisions are made instinctively. A business leader with decades of industry experience often knows what to do without a lot of thought. Who to hire, how to sell to the target market, how to resolve differences with a key supplier — all arise frequently and can be dispatched quickly.

It’s only when faced with an unfamiliar challenge that things grind to a halt – a major shift in the market, investment in new technology or expansion of the business.

In an interview with McKinsey & Co., Gary Klein, Ph.D., senior scientist at MacroCognition LLC, agreed with my old friend. “You need to take your gut feeling as an important data point, but then you have to consciously and deliberately evaluate it…” says Klein. “This is what my gut is telling me; let me gather information to confirm it.”

Writing in the Harvard Business Review (2007), Klein promoted the idea of a “premortem” for any significant project. We often analyze the reasons a project ran off the rails in retrospect – a postmortem, if you will. Why not analyze all the reasons why it might go wrong in advance “so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied.”

Klein’s focus is on decision-making. However, I think there are important leadership components to this approach. A premortem asks a set of questions that business leaders don’t often ask and it forces subordinates to air their concerns.

In my book, The Reluctant CEO, a major decision was implemented only after a three-month effort to analyze what might go wrong. Here’s the dialog between CEO Jack Fleming and his coach:

“Oh, yeah. Well, we did that even though we didn’t call it a pre-mortem. We discussed all the obstacles and all the things that could go wrong. Then we developed contingency plans to address them, even though we thought it unlikely they would happen.” “That was your military training kicking in,” said Al. “Contingency planning is the soul of any military battle plan. You have to plan for everything that could go wrong because something always will.” “For me, there was another element,” said Jack. “No one makes these kinds of big decisions very often so you don’t – or I certainly don’t – have instincts that necessarily lead to a good outcome. It pays to take your time and involve other people.” Excerpt From: John Calia. “The Reluctant CEO.” iBooks.

This last point is critical. No matter how often or how sincerely you ask people to air their concerns, they will be inclined to hold back. Few people challenge the boss.

A premortem will flush out all their concerns.

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