07 Feb 2005  What Do YOU Think?

If You Blink, Will You Miss?

Malcolm Gladwell's popular new book is about the power of snap judgements and the ways in which people develop the ability to make them. Can—and should—people make typical business decisions in the blink of an eye?

 

Summing Up

The blinkers commenting on this month's column have it. But not without some strong caveats. All of which raise added questions. But what did you expect?

Most readers and non-readers of Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, are willing to accept the premise that there is a time and place for "thin slicing" that leads to quick decision making based on sense borne of experience. As Kathryn Aiken said, "I believe that those who can 'thin slice' successfully have been practicing a skill, such as decision analysis or problem solving, for years...I also believe that a gut instinct is built, not born." V. A. Emuang commented, "I think vast exposure to life, wide-ranging experiences, and a courageous, positive attitude allows one to blink or thin-slice with better success." In fact, some think that the future requires blink. As Skip Corsini put it, "I believe a person with the attention span of a hummingbird who really knows his or her business is better prepared to deal with the world as it has become than someone who has to have every single fact lined up before making a decision."

On the other hand, there were some dissenters. According to Peter Schaible, "A careful reading of Blink reveals that snap decisions can just as often be incorrect, even dangerous." August Specter expressed a clinical concern when he commented, "I am very concerned about employees/managers who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)...Often such persons are very convincing in their communication and often are correct; however, they may be very wrong due to their lack of correct analysis."

Others were concerned about the appropriate circumstances in which "blink" is practiced. According to Maris Martinsons, "There is strong evidence to suggest that selections a) within a specified domain of expertise, b) involving a small number of choices, and c) ranging from simple to a moderate level of complexity, can be made effectively using an abbreviated decision-making process." Steve Carnevale puts it more graphically: "I think blink is very dangerous. Read the book Fooled by Randomness. The author does a good job of explaining that our brain is great at pattern recognition, but not suited to statistical analysis...You need to carefully determine when to blink."

One argument put forth against blink was that its use makes poor decisions more difficult to defend. As Harlyn Sianturi put it, “Blink happens and it may be practiced by business leaders all over the world. However, it will remain less defensible in public and in the judicial system if it fails."

Several respondents provided food for thought, always welcome here. Deepak Alse speculated, "I wonder if there is such a thing as 'group gut feel?'" David Martin said that "A good manager also knows which decisions deserve more formal analysis," suggesting a question of whether we spend enough time in formal programs, such as the MBA, training prospective managers to sort out those decisions requiring blink from those requiring more formal analysis. As Michael Bernstein said, "The case study approach ...misses the critical element that in the real world many of the relevant facts, opinions, people, and so on are not laid out for us before we have to act." What do you think?

Original Article

I've been asked so frequently if I have read Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, that I feel as if I may have been one of the last to do so. Gladwell's book is about the power of snap judgements and ways that people develop the ability to make them. Primary among these is the ability to "thin slice," that is, to know exactly what to look for in an individual's behavior, in authenticating a rare object, or in addressing a situation under examination. To "thin slice" is to be able to decide quickly based on, among other things, a small sample of information and the suppression of subtle and slowly-developed biases. In fact, Gladwell's examples suggest that added information and individuals' biases often get in the way of good decision making. In part, it's a reflection of what we often term "analysis paralysis" in MBA-speak.

A distant cousin to thin slicing in our management curricula of the past forty years has been the revival of Bayesian statistics, the science of decision making based on probabilities derived from very small samples of data. The Bayesians in some ways freed decision makers from the burden and expenses (in terms of money, but especially in terms of time) of large-sample information gathering and analysis.

In Gladwell's terms, thin slicing and blink take place "behind a locked door" in our brains, one that he suggests resides somewhere between the conscious and the subconscious. (This suggests that the subtitle—"the power of thinking without thinking"—may depend on one's definition of thinking.) Most of those who are able to practice blink are unable to describe how they do it, any more than an artist can describe how he or she produces a work of fine art. But many believe that it is a learned behavior. In fact, some of the experts described in the book apparently gained their ability to thin slice through extensive research, observation, and practice. For example, a marriage counselor, by breaking down films of couples talking with each other, carefully categorizing behavior patterns, and doing this for years, has prepared himself (and trained others) to predict accurately, with just three minutes of viewing time, whether a marriage will succeed or fail. Rarely, it seems, is "thin slicing" innate.

Our MBA students often like to think that they are practicing blink. It goes by the common name of "gut feel." For years, their instructors have expended a great deal of energy trying to get them to base their judgements on evidence versus snap judgements. Will "gut feel" now gain newfound credibility under the banner of "blink" being practiced by untrained amateurs? Or is it possible that, slowly by slowly, a case-oriented curriculum involving hundreds of case studies helps an MBA candidate gain the capability to thin slice? Or is the typical business decision so much more complicated and less repetitive than, say, evaluating the authenticity of a rare object, that a manager never gains the ability to thin slice with any degree of reliability? In other words, is "blink" a behavior particularly suited to rather simple binary decisions? If this is the case, why is it that some executives seem able to make better-quality snap judgements than others while gaining the value of speed in the process? What do you think?

To learn more:

Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005)

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, second edition (Texere, 2004)

Comments

    • Deepak Alse
    • System Design Engineer - VNGN, Wipro Technologies

    I wonder if there is such a thing as "group gut feel." In any organization, every individual comes to the table with his or her own gut feel. Gut feel is an ability to understand a system as more than the sum of its parts.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    I can image many managers must be happy to read the book and use it to prove why they only rely on "gut feeling" or "personal opinions and preferences" for decisions. There are many factors behind some executives' ability to make better quality snap decisions, such as years of reading, self-improvement, work experience, and finally having been born with a certain type of character. Unfortunately, the last one is a gift and many of us don't have it.

    As always, a good leader knows his or her own strengths and weaknesses, and certainly would know when and how to use these different approaches.

     
     
     
    • Susan Meszaros
    • Managing Director, X'Prime Pty Ltd.

    I think that the more complex the decision space is, the more valuable and applicable is "blink thinking." Being able to pick out a pattern or some key attributes of the problem should lead to "blink thinking." And maybe in a more complex, messier decision space those things that get "thin sliced" show up more easily and they become more obvious, particularly to the experienced slicer. Maybe "blink thinking" is more like face recognition and other methods that humans use to process complex information in seemingly non-rational ways. And understanding it helps us to use it, rather than just marvel at it when it happens!

     
     
     
    • Jonathan Gueverra
    • Dean, School of Business and Public Service, SUNY Canton

    The premises behind blink are not new, but are quite refreshing. For example, without reviewing resumes and simply looking at the manner by which a candidate chooses to organize or present him or herself, I have often indicated to colleagues that I would not recommend interviewing. Too often, the committees have gone ahead with the interview and realized that they wasted valuable time even though the candidate possessed all the appropriate educational and professional experience.

    As a faculty member, I have become known for telling my students that the phrase "old habits die hard" should be restated as "old habits do not die." Generally, most of us do what we do because it has become a part of who we are. Even when we do the best we can to hide innate qualities, an astute and well-trained observer can see through to the reality of what we represent. Therefore, I also believe that you "judge a book by its cover" and not the other adage I was taught as a child, "don't judge a book by its cover."

    If one feels comfortable making decisions with a fraction of the data or in a blink, it pays to go ahead with the decision. Even when there is complete information, decision makers are still apt to make incorrect assumptions and be stymied by poor decisions. No one is successful by waiting for perfect information.

     
     
     
    • Puneet Luthra
    • Director of Administration, Skyline College, Sharjah (United Arab Emirates)

    "Gut feel" is rightly coined for making snap decisions. I have a firm belief that most of the decision-making process that one adopts has roots in one's family history and, later, in the positive or negative reinforcements one comes across as a result of the decisions.

    Now, with cutthroat competition, there is no room for any kind of delayed decision making. Snap decisions decide whether you succeed or not.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    It depends on whether the person has the expertise to make a valid decision "in a blink." I agree that sometimes we overanalyze until the optimal opportunity for a decision is missed. On the other hand, there are countless examples when quick, disastrous decisions were made without valid criteria. In the examples presented in the book, many people had expertise that allowed them to make blink decisions. In reality, the decisions, though formed quickly, were based on knowledge and experience. The critical factor is judgment.

     
     
     
    • David Martin
    • Director, Uzbekistan Economic Reform Project, BearingPoint

    Every day, managers must make at least dozens and probably hundreds of decisions. Obviously if we subjected every decision to all the analytical techniques we learned in our MBA classes then we would never get anything done. So we must rely on "thin slicing" or "gut feel" for most of those decisions. A good manager has a sense of the criteria he or she is using to make these "gut" decisions and periodically assesses these decisions to determine if they are working well, or if these criteria should be changed to reflect new conditions.

    A good manager also knows which decisions deserve more formal analysis. While it is okay to decide which model of desktop printer to purchase based on thin slicing, that is not the appropriate way to decide whether to go to war with Iraq!

    Gladwell's book should inspire us to look at the decisions we make to see which issues should be subjected to more formal analysis and scrutiny and which ones should be sliced more thinly.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    I value the times in my life when I have "blinked" and hit upon instant, valid answers.

    In a business context, the "blink" concept may empower the autocrat who considers input from other people merely annoying and who does not value the power of groups. While speed is desirable, instantaneous decisions can seem arbitrary to important stakeholders. A blink that alienates is a miss.

     
     
     
    • Kathryn Aiken
    • Director, Johnson Co. Ltd, Japan

    I believe that those who can "thin slice" successfully have been practicing a skill, such as decision analysis or problem solving, for years. As their confidence builds, they are not afraid to take risks and lay out a hastily sketched idea or plan, with the underlying knowledge that 80 percent of the time they are usually right on in their thinking. Over time, this method of the right amount of risk delivering the right amount of reward builds a strong analytical mind. I also believe that a gut instinct is built, not born.

    In the last few years I have witnessed some very skilled leaders sit through long, full-day business reviews in Asia. In a very short amount of time, they have taken in the data, mined it of its value, and then are able to rattle off a fast series of questions designed to challenge the presenter into thinking through what else he/she might be missing as to why their business is down, slow, or failing.

    On the other hand, those who jump to conclusions without thinking something through can often lead others to make bad decisions. The vicious cycle begins of bad decisions leading to bad results, leading to alternative decisions, and so on. It can take many companies down the path to oblivion. Let's hope the new MBAs give themselves time to practice how to successfully blink at the table.

     
     
     
    • August Spector
    • Manager, Disability Programs, Nuclear Regulatory Commission

    Unfortunately, I have not read Blink, but I am very concerned about employees/managers who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). These people may, due to their hyperactivity and impulsivity, make such "blink" decisions. Often such persons are very convincing in their communication and often are correct; however, they may be very wrong due to their lack of correct analysis. There's a strong chance they could lead others to a wrong decision.

    I am a consultant involved with ADHD issues in the workplace and can show examples of both good and poor decisions. I would hope the book discusses such issues as cognitive and neurological disorders.

     
     
     
    • V. A. Emuang
    • Multimediator, Defiant Labs

    I think vast exposure to life, wide-ranging experiences, and a courageous, positive attitude allows one to blink or thin slice with better success. Perhaps the larger amount one has of the third factor reduces the need for the first two; and youthful enthusiasm and energy then play up and allow you to roll with the results.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    The blink concept is real and applicable to a qualified individual in sophisticated situations. The most reliable cases are managers who have proven their success with similar decisions or where similar skills apply. "Gut feel"—almost by definition—is often best applied to sophisticated decisions rather than binary yes/no answers. This is where human intuition excels.

    The potential abuses are greatest for unproven managers and in industries where snap decisions are the norm. In my experience at six high tech firms, far too often decisions are made, then reversed, either before the full potential of the decision becomes known or after jumping at the "next big idea" or "next customer request." This becomes a chronic problem.

    I like the chess paradigm better for most situations. If you're very good at the game, you can assess a large number of inappropriate moves extremely quickly. And, you can repeat moves you've thought through in the past without great review. But for a new approach, it helps to take a short amount of time to think through the ramifications of your tactics and strategy. In the high tech world, this translates to a few days or a few weeks of solid market analysis, rather than pure blink.

     
     
     
    • Cheral Stewart
    • CRM Implementation Specialist, CallSource

    Making good decisions "in a blink" is a combination of innate and learned skills. For example, I learned to speed-read in the second grade. Later in life when I owned a successful retail store, I used those same skills to scan huge amounts of merchandise at the gift shows and select unusual merchandise ahead of the adoption curve.

    Without an interesting personal sense of style, though, that scanning would have been useless. My mother confirms that I was born with that "unusual" sense of style causing her much anguish while we lived in Kentucky. In Los Angeles, though, it was a business asset.

     
     
     
    • Skip Corsini
    • Consultant, Dale Carnegie Training

    Though I try to manage my own impulses (with mixed success), I do feel strongly that the instinctive responses of experienced people most often yield the best results, whether under stress or at ease. I believe a person with the attention span of a hummingbird who really knows his or her business is better prepared to deal with the world as it has become than someone who has to have every single fact lined up before making a decision.

    I think it is possible to be both creative and organized, assuming that knowledge of the industry and the enterprise is in place. The most important thing is balance.

     
     
     
    • Peter A. Schaible
    • Director, Subscription Website Publishers Association

    A careful reading of Blink reveals that snap decisions can just as often be incorrect, even dangerous. Gladwell cites examples of how we are conditioned by a lifetime of unconscious prejudice to draw conclusions that are false and, in some cases, fatal.

    Beware: The consequences of incorrectly interpreting the minimal cues on a human face can be lethal. Witness the New York City police killing an unarmed citizen, Amadou Diallo, when—under extreme stress—they incorrectly interpreted fast-moving events. They were certain they saw him brandish a handgun when none existed.

     
     
     
    • Seena Sharp
    • Principal, Sharp Market Intelligence

    Gut instinct is invaluable for many decisions, but considerably less so for business decisions. In a rapidly and constantly changing business environment, instinct is not nearly as useful since it doesn't include adapting to changes, new approaches, unusual successes, and so on. This information is available by doing research, formal or informal.

    Businesses both large and small are frequently surprised by the emergence and success of new companies, or changes created by established companies. These players have done their homework and figured out what new features are desired. Or perhaps they recognize unknown customers (who don't fit the traditional profile) or they understand that there's an opportunity to sell via different distribution channels. These successes are not born from instinct, but from research.

     
     
     
    • Harlyn Sianturi MM
    • Commercial Rep, PT KPC

    "Blink" happens and it may be practiced by business leaders all over the world. However, it will remain less defensible in public and in the judicial system if it fails, like other unscientific guides such as magic, cult behavior, or even religion. Though if blink succeeds, no one complains.

     
     
     
    • August Ray

    I believe quite strongly in "gut feel" for the appropriate decision and in the appropriate situation. What can be frustrating is that justifying the value of a gut feel in the business world can be like Galileo asserting that the Earth revolved around the sun: It is so easily derided by those level-headed types who seek 100 percent certainty (itself a fiction) or loads of analysis (which is no guarantee against incorrect conclusions). A gut feel may be difficult to explain, but it clearly combines all of a human's experience, knowledge, perception, and decision making ability toward reaching a speedy conclusion based on an available thin slice of information.

    When a car proceeds through a stop sign toward your own car and you swerve to avoid it, you don't stop to consider alternatives to acting. And when your "gut feel" results in the avoidance of an accident, you don't question if you acted properly. So why is it that business leaders have such difficulty relying on their own gut to reach appropriate business decisions without unnecessary delays or costs?

    I think part of the reason is that a well-researched decision that turns out bad is easier to defend. (Funny how spending time and money to reach a bad decision is more defensible than making the same bad decision with less cost.) In addition, those who are uncomfortable with "gut feels" forget that business is as much art as science and that a delayed or costly decision-making process is a decision unto itself— and often a bad one at that.

    I'll take the gut feel of a knowledgeable, inspirational leader over all the spreadsheets in the world, any time.

     
     
     
    • Michael Bernstein
    • President, Hitech Directions

    We would like to think there are simple answers to complex questions and problems but, sadly, there aren't.

    The case study approach to decision making has value and certainly keeps students and faculty occupied; but it misses the critical element that in the real world many of the relevant facts, opinions, people, and so on are not laid out for us before we have to act.

    Gladwell makes the point that one must be cautious of acting on "gut level" answers to surveys because respondents often give answers they think questioners want/expect to hear, rather than how they will really act—witness the wonderful New Coke fiasco.

     
     
     
    • Maris Martinsons
    • Associate Professor of Management, City University of Hong Kong

    There is strong evidence to suggest that selections a) within a specified domain of expertise, b) involving a small number of choices, and c) ranging from simple to a moderate level of complexity, can be made effectively using an abbreviated decision-making process. However, these conditions are met in only a small minority of business decisions.

    The vast majority of business decisions will benefit significantly from the systematic analysis of data and consultations with others. Given our tendency to rely on heuristic shortcuts in our decision making, our peers can play an important role. They can validate our framing of the decision, highlight biases in our thinking processes, and explicitly identify the downside (in terms of both implementation costs and negative consequences) of our tentative choices before we commit to them.

     
     
     
    • Dain Dunston
    • Executive Creative and Content Director, Snap! Productions

    This is what I call the "command and control" mentality: an action-oriented leadership style that seems to exist in the most fast-moving, skill-oriented activities. You can imagine similar stories being told of a football coach, a theater director, or a surgeon in an operating room. They don't call for team huddles, survey audiences, or research. They act, and act correctly. So, whether or not the behavior can be taught (in the example above, it isn't), well-trained people have an ability to make very quick, effective decisions that others might find remarkable.

    I spend a significant portion of my time in hotel ballrooms, directing the production of large corporate meetings. During a period of days, I'll have to make quick decisions on anything from lighting designs to the language of speeches. I'll have to evaluate and manage up to a hundred people, many of whom have specialty skills that I don't share. And, because the show must go on, there's no time for much thought. (The thinking all gets done in the months leading up to the event.)

    The decisions I make in the course of the event are rarely gut decisions. But if the question is about what will be the best in engaging their audience, I can usually make the decision without a moment's thought. Because, after all the time and preparation combined with seventeen years of experience, the answer is just obvious to me. You can't teach that. It's innate.

     
     
     
    • Amareshwar Sahay
    • Joint General Manager, RITES Ltd., India

    Before I put forward my point of view, let me clarify first that I have not yet been able to read the book by Malcolm Gladwell. I am, however, somewhat familiar with the process of decision making and its outcomes. As any other human being, I have made some decisions on so-called gut feelings and others after careful deliberations; and I can say I have found both methods equally effective or ineffective. Actually the successful outcome of any decision does not depend on decision alone: The most important factor is the ability to maximize the benefits of whatever decision that has been.

    The ability of mind to make coherent decisions in a blink comes from one's knowledge of the intended goal. If a decision maker is clear in his mind about his goal he should be able to take most of his decisions in a blink and they will all be very good decisions. In situations where the decisions consistent with the intended goal are not obvious, a blink decision will be to take a considered decision. If, however, the decisions are taken without clear understanding of intended goals, it is possible that neither gut feelings nor the most careful deliberation will prove to be good decisions.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    I agree with the thin slice approach if kept in narrow terms. I use it every time a new person is hired in my operation. I have been managing and working in the food service industry for many years and can tell almost as soon as I meet a new cook or server if he or she will make it. People in my industry have a certain way of carrying themselves as well as pride in what they do and the way they talk about it. Thin slicing has never failed me. But one must also assume, as Jane Austin wrote, "Where so many hours have been spent convincing myself I am right, is there not some reason to fear I may be wrong?"

     
     
     
    • NandaKumar Mallenhalli
    • Senior Design Engineer

    I believe the quality of blink power is a function of the blink domain in which it is acquired. Blink power is highly susceptible to extraneous, unknown variants that could impact the blink domain.

     
     
     
    • Joe Violette
    • Project Manager, Bechtel Corporation

    There are some businesses in which you are careful to avoid blink decisions. In managing the design, procurement, and construction of a nuclear power plant, I was very careful to avoid all snap decisions. On the contrary, my team paid excruciating attention to detail and made sure that every decision was well documented.

     
     
     
    • Sola Adu
    • Brand Management, GlaxoSmithKline

    The concept of blink itself is premised on having a thorough understanding of the subject being dealt with and upon which a decision is being made. Decision making must and should be based upon a sound understanding and interpretation of the issues. The old adage, "look before you leap," still stands true today.

     
     
     
    • Mike Flanagan C.P.M.
    • Corporate Equipment Purchase Manager, A large retailer

    My belief is that blink comes through learning: A combination of street knowledge and formal education. I think the quality of decision blinking is in direct proportion to those who have a wide range of experiences and have been exposed to processing past experiences with today's events or questions. People who continually blink are not reinventing the wheel at each decision point. They build on what is in the past and combine it with the present to move them toward the future.

     
     
     
    • Steve Carnevale
    • Venture Capital Partner, Point Cypress Ventures

    I think blink is very dangerous. Read the book Fooled by Randomness. The author does a good job of explaining that our brain is great at pattern recognition, but not suited to statistical analysis. Therefore, our intuition can be right on or way off, depending on the circumstance. You need to carefully determine when to blink.

     
     
     
    • Bruce R. Kuzma
    • private security consultant

    Good judgments are not founded upon theory, lies, rumors, propaganda, or gossip. Neither are they founded upon facts that are clung to like a life preserver to cover up negligent duties/job performances in the past. Good judgments are weighed by the truthful facts that are substantiated by the evidence put forward through the means of tested, proven methods of credibility.

    Anything that is worth doing is worth doing right the first time. Standing by your work only proves one of two things: a) How big a fool you are, or b) how strong a character you possess to endure all trials without wavering in the pursuit of your goal.

     
     
     
    • Paul T. Jackson
    • Information Consultant, Trescott Research

    There certainly has been, in my estimation, much "analysis paralysis" in the library world. And even in business, we see a lot of hesitancy in going ahead with a project instead of taking a "try it and see" approach. I've found that sometimes one just needs to jump in in order to find out what the problems are and then adjust to them. But it is certainly not a tactic for the beginner.