Decisions, visions, brain functions and storytelling

Recently, I’ve become interested in decision making. My job is frequently about helping people make decisions which impact their businesses and their lives. It’s also about selling services, which requires some clue about how and why people make purchasing decisions. And these professional interests in decision making, and underscored by the constant stream of decisions contemplated every day, both large and small. What shirt will I wear? What car should I buy? Where should my kids go to school?

With all this bouncing around my prefrontal cortex, I’ve found much insight in Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide. It’s about what happens in our brains when we’re making decisions, the roles played by rationality and instinct. It’s also about which parts of our brains are used when making these decisions. As you’d expect for a popular science book, narrative accounts play an important role in bringing the various examples of decision making to life. When you’re kicking around terms like ‘stochasticity’, ‘posterior cingulate’ and ‘dopamine receptors’, it helps if you can relate it to stories about football matches and Deal or no Deal.

There’s a couple of stories about mid-flight incidents on board passenger jets, a topic which can always be relied upon to raise the heart rate. One is about a United Airlines flight from Denver to Chicago, which was interrupted by an internal explosion which took out all the hydraulics, leaving the pilots without the ability to steer the plan. The story is about decision making under pressure, and the ability to invent a tactic for landing the plane on the run.

“…[the pilot] needed to solve his problem, to invent a completely new method of flight control. This is where the prefrontal cortex really demonstrates its unique strengths. It’s the only brain region able to take an abstract principle – in this case, the physics of engine thrust – and apply it in an unfamiliar context to come up with an entirely original solution. It’s what allowed [the Pilot] to logically analyse the situation, to imagine his engines straightening [the plane’s] steep bank.”

This last phrase, about imagining an end result and creating a process to achieve that result, caught my eye. This is, I think, what many creatives do. They imagine the end result and corral the resources (time, capital, labour etc) to bring about that vision. Some will be able to design prototypes to communicate that vision to others in the production process; a fashion designer will do so through sketches and patterns. Others will have to do so without visual tools; a screenwriter has to imagine what a film will look like and sell that vision to others, long before a frame is shot.

Entrepreneurs do this too. They have to imagine a version of their business which fulfils what they want from it: money, lifestyle or whatever it is that sparks their motivation for being in business. They have to imagine the end result and ‘see’ it long before others can. Then they invent a way to achieve it. And ‘invent’ is really the right word because although they can follow the steps others have taken in the past, each business’s journey is unique, with its own ups and downs.

The Pilot’s story is about the suppression of emotion (in this case, panic) to focus on rationality.( It’s not always like this though; the book also highlights decision making which is enhanced by instinct and emotion). But it’s also about the ability to screen out all unnecessary information in order to concentrate on the crucial data. For example, the Pilot had no time to focus on the hydraulics – they were gone and never coming back. He had to focus on the elements he could control – in this case engine speed –and block out the rest.

Again, there’s something in this for entrepreneurs. I met this week with a fellow who runs a creative industries business and he told me that his company now focuses less on small, labour intensive jobs and more on larger scale jobs for corporate clients, on which he can spread his resources more evenly. Such is the dream of many a small business owner, so I asked him how he achieved it.

He didn’t really know how; there had been no deliberate strategy, other than to adopt a vision for his company which involved work with large corporate clients. He was inspired to do so by a presentation by a Hindu priest he met at a bank’s innovation conference (I know, right?). The priest talked about balancing a peacock feather on your finger. If you look at your finger, apparently it’s really hard to balance the feather. But look at the top of the feather, and it’s much easier. (Peacocks are hard to come by at my place, so I have yet to try this for myself.)

Choose the metaphor you like – looking at the top of the feather, forgetting about the plane’s hydraulics – the point is that focus on an end goal and screening out distractions count for something. And that there’s nothing like telling a good story to illustrate abstract concepts.

PS. Talking of good stories..While adding some links to this article, I discovered that How We Decide has been withdrawn from sale by its publisher. The story’s here.

Ref: Lehreh, J. 2009, How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York.


Decision making and electing entrepreneurs

In preparation for something else entirely, I have been reading up on decision making. Through that, I’ve come across numerous references to Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and the theory discussed within of two cognitive systems employed in decision making.

System 1 is fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious. It’s the gut feel. System 2 is slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious. It’s the long hard look. System 1, so the theory goes, is pervasive. Even if you’re deliberately trying to employ System 2 you naturally fall back on System 1.So gut feel governs our decisions far more than we may realise.

I can’t help but consider how this theory applies to the results of the recent US election. Perhaps one of the factors in the Trump campaign’s success was its understanding of the importance of the gut feel and its blitzkrieg communication style, concentrating on emotions, stereotypes and subconscious fears.

Understanding decision making must surely be crucial to understanding entrepreneurship. What is entrepreneurship if not a series of decisions concerning the creation and growth of a business? There are initial decisions to pursue a set of goals, despite the inherent risks. And subsequent decisions about strategies to attain those goals, making smart use of existing resources. Linked together, those decisions form an entrepreneurial chain.

This article here details the similarities between entrepreneurship and moral decision making. It argues that the two share a common set of ingredients: imagination, creativity, novelty, and sensitivity.

The entrepreneur creates something new in society, something novel, that meets a need that is latent in consumers. Successful entrepreneurs have to be attuned to the needs and desires of those who constitute potential markets for their products and services. The entrepreneur has to have imagination in abundance to envision a new product or service and bring it to market. The product entrepreneurs introduce into society is new and its impact on humans and the environment is unknown. It takes imagination to envision the possible impacts a new product may make and develop novel and creative solutions to potential problems that may arise. …these same qualities are crucial for moral decision making, and the issue of moral decision making is critical for entrepreneurship.

I think what this description of entrepreneurship lacks is the element of self-interest. Entrepreneurial decisions might be about a lot of things, but at their core, they are surely about improving the lot of the entrepreneur in question (or at the very least, not damaging that position). Moral decision making does not necessarily need this element; in fact self-interest work against a moral decision making framework.

Not that self-interest is bad. It might be a crucial element which counteracts the level of risk involved in being an entrepreneur. So self-interest might be an essential element of entrepreneurship, and perhaps it permeates all entrepreneurial decisions, in the same gut feel way of System 1.

A bit later in the same article, there’s a small section which brings us back, in a funny way, to President-Elect Trump.

In a society that promotes entrepreneurship, change and newness are highly valued and elevated. Such a society will encourage the desire for new things and a willingness to replace old things. Everything in an entrepreneurial society is open to change and modification, to replacement through various entrepreneurial experiments.

In Trump’s rise, and that of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, we see entrepreneurship communicated as a virtue; that an entrepreneur is a well qualified person to assume high political office. They are seen, I suppose, as people who have made personal decisions which have served them well, and presumably as people who can repeat that trick for their respective nations. This is one of the results of the idolisation of business success, that change and newness are highly valued and elevated. In a society where entrepreneurs are hero worshipped, is it surprising that we choose leaders who embody that breed’s particular strain of change and newness?

And if we have prioritised entrepreneurship over an ability to make decisions within a robust moral framework, let’s hope the two really do have some things in common.

Ref: Buchholz, R.A. & Rosenthal, S.B. 2005, “The Spirit of Entrepreneurship and the Qualities of Moral Decision Making: Toward A Unifying Framework”, Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 60, no. 3, pp. 307-315.