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Can companies learn from speed dating? You bet.

August 12, 2008

I spent this past Canada Day stretched out on a lounge chair overlooking Moose Lake in Haliburton, ON, reading Blink, by Malcom Gladwell. Blink – hardly the fluffy read one might have chosen for the setting – is about split-second decisions: how we make them, when we should listen to them, and when we should not.

In his book, Gladwell argues that everyday our brain processes thousands of pieces of information. In order to make split-second decisions, our brain must ‘thin-slice’. More precisely, it must draw on the ability of our unconscious mind to find patterns in situations and behaviors based on very narrow slices of experience. Gladwell further suggests that a decision made in the blink of an eye can sometimes be more powerful than the ones we spend months researching and weighing out.

While some might call that kind of instant decision-making ‘intuition’, Gladwell argues that intuition is actually “emotional reactions, gut feelings, thoughts and impressions that don’t seem entirely rational”. Rapid cognition, on the other hand, is rational. “It’s thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with thinking,” he writes. In the context of business strategy, it can be crucial. Imagine having the power to discern through all the piles of information and make the right decision in the blink of an eye.

Still, there is a dark side to instant decision-making. This dark side allows us to fall prey to our biases or ‘visual traps’ and make the wrong decision. Gladwell calls this the “Warren Harding Error”, which refers to the 29th president to rule over the United States. Warren Harding was elected president not on his merits, but simply because he looked the part. Harding was in fact much better at golfing, gambling and chasing women and is rated as one of the worst presidents in American history.

Gladwell titles this chapter ‘Why we fall for tall, dark and handsome men’ because not only did this kind of error in judgment cause Americans to vote for Harding – a man hardly qualified for the job – but it also consistently surfaces in our hiring practices today. Gladwell writes that 58% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are over six feet tall—yet only about 14.5% of all American men are that tall. Moreover, just 3.9% of adult males in the general population are six feet two inches or taller, but almost a third of CEOs are. Gladwell suggests that while we are unaware of it, many of us imagine leaders as people who are physically imposing. Thus, we hire them based on their looks, and not necessarily their qualifications.

In fact, we make snap judgments all the time and often can’t explain why. Two researchers from Columbia University studied thin-slicing in the context of speed dating. Drs. Sheena Iyengar and Raymond Fisman found, from having the participants fill out questionnaires, that what people said they wanted in an ideal mate did not match their subconscious preferences. In one particular case, a female participant sought men who were intelligent and sincere. Yet, she picked someone who was attractive and funny, but not overly smart. The next day, she said she liked attractive and funny, but a month later, she was back to looking for intelligent and sincere.

Does that mean we don’t know what we want? According to Gladwell, not necessarily, just that sometimes we make decisions without really understanding what happened in the process of making that selection. Perhaps then, one could argue that our instinct or subconscious is trying to ignore the stereotypes and is instead drawing on a pattern we have already experienced. It’s telling us to go with what we need, as opposed to what we think we want.

This made me think of a recent experience we had with a potential client. The client asked us to submit a proposal with the following caveat: we must fill out the proposal according to their requirements and specifications. When we tried to explain that our service is different and as such would immediately disqualify us, we got passed around from one person to another like a hookah pipe: all smoke, and little outcome. We got so bogged down in their bureaucracy that it was clear that they need a radical approach to the way they operate. This too seemed like a classic case of wanting one thing, but clearly needing another.

This makes for an interesting parallel: if companies wishing to improve their operations are making the same kinds of decisions that speed daters tend to make when they are choosing a mate, could it be that their rapid cognition is leading them down the wrong path? In other words, if companies (and daters) would re-evaluate their criteria and not fall into these subtle visual traps or inherent biases, perhaps they would make better decisions.

Moreover, in the context of business operations, frequently we see managers having to make split-second decisions with wrong information, poorly designed processes and bottlenecks. These are akin to biases and visual traps. When a manager is ‘blinded’ by these inhibitors, not only is it hard to make a good decision rapidly, but the pressure is always on the same few people. Their instinct is often to jump to an immediate conclusion and find a quick-fix. As we know, these are rarely sustainable solutions, and managers frequently find themselves back at square one.

If, according to Gladwell, the challenge is to know when to rely on our rapid cognition and when not to, then perhaps it is worth considering this: using our simple, common sense method, we teach people how to think differently. This rational approach – one that relies on systematically applying facts and data rather than emotion and perception – allows our clients to make the right decisions for their company. And unlike many consulting firms, we transfer this knowledge from a grassroots level so that each person in the entire company has the skills of a manager to consistently make sound decisions – even if they are made in a split-second. Bottom line: if you’re a company shopping around for a suitable ‘mate’, don’t be afraid of making a quick decision. Just be sure it’s what you need, not just what you want.