In this world of pressure, uncertainty and speed, leaders are all too often overwhelmed by the need to make decisions, while not having all the time all the information we need to optimize. Some would hope that leaders would use methodical cost-benefit analysis–sometimes there is not simply enough time to be so analytical. Sometimes optimization is a myth. Economists put their faith on the ability of individuals to estimate the expected benefits of taking action. Classical economists would have us believe that we can evaluate the array of alternatives, estimate outcomes, and anticipate the probability of success and failure. That may be an ideal methodology for making decisions, but it’s not the way most of us live. It’s not the way we decide what universities to attend, who to marry, and how to invest. When push comes to shove, analysis can only go so far.
Rational optimization can only get us in the door, but the final leap often depends on the power of intuition and gut feelings. The final leap may often depend on what decision theorists and social psychologists refer to as heuristics, or if you will, rules of thumb. These rules exist in the uncomfortable social-psychological world of quick decisions–decisions that seem to come from nowhere. But as Gary Klein (The Power of Intuition) and Gerd Gigerenzer (Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious) point out in their books these rapid rules, these heuristics, these expeditious tools that facilitate decision making when we don’t have all necessary information are not irrational, but are rather grounded in clear patterns that can be recognized. While everyone is reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, if you want to delve a bit deeper into these issues you may want to consider reading the books by Klein and Gigerenzer.