Never trust an atom (and sometimes your brain)


While browsing in a bookstore the other day (yes, I prefer real books to digital readers for business reading), I saw a young person wearing a t-shirt that gave me a good laugh. The front of the shirt had a colorful graphic of an atom, with electrons swirling around the nucleus. The caption underneath said: Never trust an atom; they make up everything.

As I chuckled at the clever play on words, it occurred to me that the same could be said of the human brain. Although our brains don’t make up everything, the fact is they do make up a lot of stuff. As business leaders, making stuff up (or MSU as I call it) without realizing you are doing it can be a dangerous habit to fall into, often leading to critical strategic decisions that have no basis in reality.

As human adults, we like to think of ourselves as rational creatures who make decisions in a logical, practical manner — and we are, much of the time. Yet, we are also illogical and irrational, often making decisions driven by blind spots, unconscious biases, outdated thinking patterns and other brain tendencies that get in the way of winning in business.

In my dealings with CEOs, business owners and senior executives around the globe, I’ve found that most are smart, driven and good at making decisions. Yet, even the sharpest leaders can fall victim to MSU, especially in two situations: When we don’t have enough or the right information, and when an idea or situation threatens a deeply held value, belief or assumption.

Where’s the data?

In today’s information-overload world, it seems hard to believe that leaders can encounter situations where we don’t have enough information. Often, the problem is having too much information, which can distract us from focusing on the work that needs to get done. However, markets change very quickly these days, and are often impacted or disrupted by circumstances we never see coming. We understand the need to respond quickly. Yet, gathering and analyzing the data we need feels like it will take too long, so we make stuff up.

Feeling pressured to make quick decisions can easily trigger MSU mode. Once we start making stuff up, the brain begins to engage in the following misleading and unproductive behaviors:

Seeing what it wants to see

One of the most dangerous tendencies of the brain (from a decision-making point of view) is to screen out information that contradicts our prevailing view of the world and let in that which supports it. Instead of seeing the world as it really is, we see it as we want or think it should be. When the world moved slower, this wasn’t as much of an issue. These days, ignoring information that doesn’t fit our prevailing view of our business can quickly make us irrelevant to our customers.

Reinventing incoming information

To see what it wants to see, the brain actively manipulates, twists and distorts information so that it aligns with our attitudes, beliefs and assumptions. No surprise there — we see this every day on websites and the so-called “news” channels that present highly biased opinions while calling them objective reporting. Although we can easily spot this brain habit in others, the difficulty comes in recognizing it in ourselves. Twisting information to fit our view of the world does not lead to logical, well-reasoned decisions.

Ignoring the obvious

Sometimes the brain doesn’t even bother attempting to push, pull and squeeze to make information fit what we want to see. Instead, we just ignore the information out of hand, make bad decisions and then try to justify them. For example, suppose sales are declining for several quarters in a row. Instead of accepting that customer needs are changing or that our product has fallen behind competitors’, how often do we blame it on the economy or an under-performing sales team?

Jumping to solutions

Another problem with the brain: It seeks closure, especially in the absence of information. This often leads to accepting the first idea that looks good without taking the time to thoroughly discuss, analyze or vet it. Granted, sometimes the first solution is a good one. But what if there’s a better one out there? Unless we take the time to explore possibilities and seek alternative solutions, we will never know. And if the first solution we jump to doesn’t turn out so well, we end up with a costly “do-over.”

Clinging to the past

The human brain evolved as a survival mechanism. Back in the day when evolving humans were on the menu for large carnivores, the brain focused primarily on avoiding threats. To this day, when we feel threatened or stressed, the brain tends to revert to what it knows will work — not a good strategy when “we’ve always done it this way because it works” can change overnight.

In business, this survival instinct manifests itself in a tendency to avoid threats rather than pursue opportunities. When faced with market changes, competitors or other circumstances that threaten our business model, the brain actively resists new ideas that could upset the apple cart. When this happens, phrases like “that won’t work here,” “that’s a crazy idea,” and “we’ve always done it this way,” permeate the organizational lexicon. This, in turn, prevents us from identifying and exploring new possibilities that could lead the business to become even more successful.

Challenge your conventional wisdom

How can you avoid getting stuck in MSU?

First, accept that your brain doesn’t always act in your best interests. Then build in processes to review and analyze your thinking to determine whether your assumptions and beliefs are based in reality or you’re just making stuff up. For example:

  • Question everything you think you know about your business model and whether it can continue to make you successful.
  • Challenge your assumptions and biases about how you add value to customers.
  • Ask, “What ways of thinking and working in our business and our industry as a whole haven’t changed in a long time?”
  • Stop allowing “we’ve always done it this way” language to kill promising new ideas.

Implementing these processes takes courage and discipline. Courage to open up to new ideas, different perspectives and conflicting opinions that threaten your prevailing point of view. Discipline to pause and challenge your MSUs not just occasionally, but whenever they rear their ugly heads. Fortunately, the rewards far outweigh the effort. You’ll make better decisions based on fact rather than made-up information. And you’ll build a culture that encourages the innovation and risk-taking required to become a leader in today’s market.

The brain isn’t going to stop making stuff up. But we can prevent MSU from running the show by becoming more aware of its signs and symptoms and checking in with our brains to see what they’re making up and why. In the meantime, watch out for those atoms!

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One comment
  1. Bill Dorman

    May 31, 2018 at 3:57 pm

    Excellent advice! Also decision making particularly on strategic issues afford best outcomes when key execs work together. That teamwork also mitigates our natural emotional input

    Reply

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