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September 16, 2013
Strategic Dithering
“Hold your fire,” “bumble,” “muddle along,” and “don’t be in a hurry to make that decision,” are choice terminology. Or as in Maureen Dowd’s commentary, dither: “Amateur hour started when Obama dithered on Syria and failed to explain the stakes there.” Any number of commentators have fired off missiles about Obama’s dithering on Syria and all the trouble it gets us into.
Of course, knowledgeable readers are well aware that dithering, hesitating and being undecided, drives journalists nuts. They’re paid to get the news out and when a politician is holding his fire, they’ve got no news to write about. So dithering becomes an expletive readily applied to slow decision makers. Take it all with a grain of salt.
Dithering can be a highly useful personal strategy.
Crucial Variables
Crucial variables in dithering are time and information. Both can be uncertain. You may have narrow parameters of time. Or, as in the following illustration of making a college choice, the student had several months. The amount of information needed to make a decision, the suspicion or hope that the context may change over time, and the limitations time places upon the information gathering or change are all important variables.
The truth of the matter, however, is that any smart executive will tell you not to make an important decision until you have to. And that applies to all of life. So I’m very much in favor of “strategic dithering,” or what executives and students of negotiation label “strategic delay.” And if it drives people nuts, then that’s OK with me.
Dithering, or delaying, is of much value in many different contexts. My grandson spent months trying to figure out, based on his values, the best colleges to apply to and then which offer was the best one to accept. And that was exceptionally wise in spite of the fact that his mom preferred that he just get on with his decision. After he got all the data he wanted and visited half a dozen colleges and then went back a second time, he found the college that best suited him. Spending nearly a quarter million dollars for a college education implies care and thoughtfulness. Three weeks into college, he’s already a very happy camper. That might not have been guaranteed if he’d made his decision too quickly.
One of my good friends recently had several job offers, two of which looked especially enticing. But he dithered for as long as possible, pushing back the date of the offers, gathering further information, talking to employees of both firms that he was able to access, and finally making his decision after a full month. Time was on his side, though, and that may not be true for some decisions. In spite of the fact that he took the position with the lower salary, after six months he’s found that his decision was best for him.
No question; there are occasions in which you may lose a useful opportunity if you dither too long. Still, there are a number of very important reasons to dither when faced with important decisions. So when making decisions, Bazerman and his colleagues emphasize a number a number of reasons to dither when the situation makes the time possible.
Discounting the Future
Despite claims that we’ve thought through an important decision, people intuitively and inevitably discount the future to a degree that cannot be rationally defended.
Asked whether they’d prefer to receive $10,000 today or $12,000 a year from now, people often say they’d prefer to receive $10,000 today. They ignore the opportunity to earn a 20 percent return on their investment. They tend to over-weight the short-term and discount the future.
That takes place several ways. One of the most obvious ways for students and workers is project-based. Students believe that although the big test is two days away, they can wait until the next day to do their studying. Project planning is classic. Professionals schedule the work, believing it can be finished on a tight schedule. In both these instances, failure can readily result. Typically, complex problems take more time than we’ve planned.
Positive Illusions
We all hold a variety of illusions regarding the future. Although positive illusions are held by all generations, two are especially relevant to the inherent idealism of Millennials: unrealistic optimism and the illusion of control. Unrealistic optimism is the tendency to believe that one’s own future will be better and brighter than others’, and also better and brighter than an objective analysis would suggest. We also tend to think that we can control uncontrollable events.
In spite of the recent recession, both undergraduates and graduate students tend to expect that they are far more likely — than reality suggests — to graduate with honors, and get a good, high-paying and enjoyable job.
Younger generations also tend to believe that they can control the path to work success by following their passions and their obvious strengths. In spite of Marcus Buckingham’s popular books, their belief that the world will respond to their strengths and they will be rewarded with a livable job is an illusion not supported by today’s job market.
The psychologists David Messick and Keith Sentis have found that our decision-making patterns are profoundly egocentric. We tend to first determine our preference for a certain outcome on the basis of self-interest. Next, we select the information that justifies that decision. Consequently, the problem becomes all the more difficult, the resolution is biased by self-interest, and the resolution has far less chance of becoming viable. In such situations, the problem is worsened by the inability to view information objectively.
For decades many of those who have insisted that the scientists are flat-out wrong on climate change have been driven by self-interest. As Bazerman has noted, these folk have gone in their self-interested arguments from “There is no problem” to “We aren’t responsible” to “It’s too expensive to fix.” And so they have left the problem to future generations.
An honest analysis will indicate that we constantly make decisions that are terrifically biased by self-interest.
Frustrating Our Bias
Given the power and number of biases we face in making decisions, where should we begin to make better decisions?
Certainly the starting place is familiarity with the forms of bias. And when time permits and lack of information demands, delay the decision and dither. There’s usually more time to delay a decision than most think. As a consultant, clients typically need my service yesterday. That’s often just plain nonsense. So normally I ignore their request and tactfully suggest a more realistic timeline. That enables me to do a better job. Furthermore, if you’re selling services, those same clients who want information immediately can take weeks and months to make a decision. So I am very cautious about committing to time frames other than in general terms, engaging instead in strategic delay.
Asking disconfirming questions about a decision is still another useful strategy. When numerous possibilities exist, it’s important to eliminate the blind alleys you might get stuck in. But it’s very important to disconfirm not only your ideas, but also your data sources. Data sources consistently provide wrong information, so it’s exceptionally important to question them.
Many explanations exist for every observation, so make it a habit to explore a variety of possible problem explanations before making a decision.
Find trusted challengers to your ideas and data, and use them. It takes time to build that quality in friends, but it’s very possible. I appreciate people who understand me and challenge my ideas. But I also appreciate having smart people with their own damned agendas that I usually disagree with. They inevitably force me to think and rethink my decision and argue my case with myself better. That seems to be true even when I think their ideas are bonkers.
Making effective decisions is not nearly as easy as we’d hope. Thankfully, social scientists have begun to understand bias and decision-making. Delaying action, or dithering, is often a superb characteristic of effective decisions. The next step, of course, is learning to use strategic delay for ourselves.
I am indebted especially to:
Max Bazerman and Lisa Shu,
Cognitive Barriers to Environmental Action: Problems and Solutions, Working Paper,  11-045, Harvard Business School
J. Edward Russo and Paul J.H. Schoemaker,
Winning Decisions, (New York: Currency Doubleday), 2002.

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Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.

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