Gary Klein on how to spark insights through better decision making

Insights for Making Better Decisions | Gary Klein on The Knowledge Project #144

Check out The Knowledge Project’s Episode Page and Show Notes 

Key Takeaways

  • Insights are disorienting and they make you change the way you think; organizations think they want insights and innovation and say that they want innovation, but in reality, they don’t, because insights force them to change 
  • Organizational mistakes are costly and public, but no one knows when an institution fails to make an insight, which is why they often default to error reduction 
  • Innovations have a track record of failure until they ultimately succeed, so it’s easy to dismiss something that has failed 9 times, not knowing that a 10th iteration may have resulted in the innovation materializing 
  • Experts are well-aware of their mistakes; their mistakes eat away at them 
  • It’s our natural tendency to dismiss anomalies because they threaten our existing worldview, but we should explore them when they happen  
  • People tend to reach a certain level of performance, and then they stagnate; the ones that continue improving engage in a process of “unlearning” where they question their previously held notions about the given subject and explore new depths that would have otherwise remained unexplored had they not questioned their mental model
  • Experts welcome the chance to operate outside their comfort zone of routines because it may result in new insights, whereas journeymen are reluctant to operate in the gray area because their tried-and-true techniques and routines aren’t useful 
  • Making mistakes + reflecting on those mistakes = progress toward becoming an expert
  • Biases are related to our experiences; we don’t dismiss our experiences, why should we dismiss our biases?
  • “If the advantages and the disadvantages of the two options are almost perfectly balanced, it doesn’t matter which one we pick.” – Gary Klein on the Zone of Indifference
    • And yet people and committees will spend an enormous amount of time mulling over the choice when in reality it won’t materially matter which one they choose
  • Instead of gaining compliance through fear and intimidation, work to gain compliance through trust and faith 

Intro

  • Gary Klein (@KleInsight) is a research psychologist that specializes in decision-making. He has spent the last 50 years studying how and why people make the decision they do. He is the founder of ShadowBox LLC, a cognitive skills training company, and the author of five books, including the popular Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights.
  • Gary Klein and Shane Parrish sit down to explore naturalistic decision making, how to gain insights, cognitive biases, why people fail at becoming experts, the difference between experience and expertise, and useful strategies that individuals and organizations can use to make better decisions 
  • Check out these Podcast Notes on other discussions from The Knowledge Project 
  • Host: Shane Parrish (@ShaneAParrish)   

What Sparks Insight For Decision Making?

  • Organizations tend to optimize for error reduction instead of optimizing for insights maximization 
  • There are three different pathways that spark insights
    • Connection Pathway: simply putting ideas together and not upsetting your existing mental model 
    • Contradiction Pathway: something happens that doesn’t make sense and forces you to change what you previously believed 
    • Correction Pathway: you are stuck because you have a flawed belief 
  • You can spark insights by becoming curious about things that don’t make sense
  • Insights are disorienting and they make you change the way you think; organizations think they want insights and innovation and say that they want innovation, but in reality, they don’t, because insights force them to change 
  • Organizations tend to stifle new ideas that are brought up
    • Organizational managers want predictability and things to run smoothly

How To Maximize Personal Insights 

  • Become curious and be deliberate in your search for insights 
  • Don’t beat yourself up for making mistakes 

How to Maximize Institutional Insights 

  • Organizational mistakes are costly and public, but no one knows when an institution fails to make an insight 
  • Organizations should implement measures to re-examine ideas that are rejected 
  • Good ideas are fragile, precious, and easily discarded  
  • People with experience run organizations, and with that experience comes scar tissue of observing countless new ideas fail 
  • Innovations have a track record of failure until they ultimately succeed, so it’s easy to dismiss something that has failed 9 times, not knowing that a 10th iteration may have resulted in the innovation materializing 
  • Organizational leaders tend to be risk-averse, which is not conducive for sparking innovation 

Experience vs. Expertise

  • Ask someone “when was the last mistake you made?”, and if they can’t think of a mistake, they are not an expert 
  • Experts are well-aware of their mistakes; their mistakes eat away at them 
  • Confidence can be misleading 

How to Evaluate People’s Decision Making 

  • Run the person through a scenario and see how they reason through it to see if their mental model is rich enough 
  • Do not rely exclusively on past performance or experience to determine someone’s decision-making ability 
    • A combination of these criteria, however, will improve your evaluation over simply making judgments based on how the person carries themself
  • Cognitive interviews can help get beyond surface-level evaluations 
  • A decision scorecard or decision journal can be an effective tool for reflecting on past decisions and determining what to do in future scenarios 
  • Criteria to track in a decision journal:
    • What is the decision?
    • What is the primary goal of the decision?
    • What are the information inputs being used to make the decision? 
    • Who are the other people or teams that will be affected by this decision? 

What Is A Mental Model? 

  • A mental model is a set of beliefs on how something works, which includes awareness of the following:
    • Limitations
    • Boundary conditions
    • Potential vulnerabilities 
    • Contingencies plans 
    • An understanding of where people might get confused

Reflections on the Learning Loop 

  • The Learning Loop Model: you have an experience, you reflect on the experience, that reflection gives you an abstraction, and the abstraction turns into action 
  • Learning concepts from someone else = learning their abstraction 
  • Having sufficient experience allows you to draw better conclusions when learning from others’ abstractions 

The Importance of Effective Storytelling

  • We all have different mental models, so we will draw different interpretations from the same story
    • This is the richness of storytelling
  • A story requires a mystery and the storyteller should like to tell stories
  • Good stories result in an insight; you come to a realization at the end of the story that you didn’t have in the beginning 

The Importance of Exploring Anomalies

  • It’s our natural tendency to dismiss anomalies, but we should explore them when they happen  
  • Anomalies are often perceived as “inconvenient data”, and even the very best scientists tend to put on a Knowledge Shield to protect their worldview, or at the very least the worldview of their given project 
  • Anomalies threaten our existing worldview 
    • Dismissing their results in “fixation errors” from refusing to accept new information that might not fit in your current mental model, but is valuable nonetheless 

How to Become An Expert 

  • People tend to reach a certain level of performance, and then they stagnate; the ones that continue improving engage in a process of “unlearning” where they question their previously held notions about the given subject and explore new depths that would have otherwise remained unexplored had they not questioned their mental model
  • Making mistakes + reflecting on those mistakes = progress toward becoming an expert
  • Making mistakes is painful, and making them without reflection will not result in progress 

Cognitive Flexibility Theory 

  • “Cognitive Flexibility Theory is the notion of trying to help people achieve expertise by preventing them from locking into routines and standard ways of doing things so that they can become more naturally adaptive.” – Gary Klein 
  • Experts welcome the chance to operate outside their comfort zone of routines because it may result in new insights, whereas journeymen are reluctant to operate in the gray area because their tried-and-true techniques and routines aren’t useful 
  • Progress in cognitive flexibility is apparent when you get excited about having to improvise in uncharted waters 

How to Conduct Useful Pre-Mortems  

  • A “pre-mortem” is a proactive analysis to discover how a project might fail
    • Pretend you have a crystal ball that is able to show you that the project ultimately failed, but it doesn’t tell you why it failed
    • A pre-mortem is a speculative discussion as to why the project failed 
  • For two minutes, have everyone on the team write down reasons for the project’s failure, and then have everyone share their reasons 
  • A pre-mortem can potentially destroy morale, so take another two minutes and have each person write down the things they can do to minimize the likelihood of the failures materializing
  • A pre-mortem encourages a culture of candor in a team or organization  
  • It reveals potential problems that would have otherwise never been anticipated during a normal meeting 
  • Don’t frame the pre-mortem as “what can go wrong”; encourage curiosity in discovering why the project (that hasn’t happened yet) failed 

How To Limit Cognitive Biases 

  • Gary observes that there is little success in trying to de-bias people, and he sees this as a good thing 
  • Biases are related to our experiences; we don’t dismiss our experiences, why should we dismiss our biases?
  • Researchers tend to only analyze the negative side of heuristic biases, and they never consider the positive side of biases 
  • Cognitive biases are generally useful, even if they are not perfect 
  • Emotions are our way of drawing on the mental patterns that we’ve built 

How To Make Team Decisions

  • The situation dictates which decision-making model is most appropriate; autocratic structures can be preferred to democratic structures, for example, depending on the urgency of executing the ultimate decision 
  • Gary doesn’t like the idea of “consensus decisions”, especially in dangerous environments 
  • There are times when anonymous voting is more effective than a model of transparent consensus  
    • Groupthink may result in the group voting for the safer option than the option that is bold and innovative because the safer option has fewer consequences if things go wrong 
  • Groups provide input, but individuals make decisions 
    • Members of a group should craft their own ideas and concepts privately before surfacing them to the group 
  • Research shows that “brainstorming” together in real-time is not effective 
  • A good question to ask in a project update meeting: “in the last three months, what has surprised you?”
    • Be concerned if nothing has surprised the team or project lead

The Zone of Indifference 

  • The Zone of Indifference is a phenomenon it’s impossible to decide which of two choices is better, so it’s more productive to just pick one instead of further analysis-by-paralysis 
  • These are the hardest decisions to wrestle with according to Gary
  • “If the advantages and the disadvantages of the two options are almost perfectly balanced, it doesn’t matter which one we pick.” – Gary Klein
    • And yet people and committees will spend an enormous amount of time mulling over the choice when in reality it won’t materially matter which one they choose 
  • Recognize when you’re in the zone of indifference, pick one of the choices, and spend your time in more fruitful ways 

Shadowboxing 

  • Shadowboxing is a scenario-based approach to improving decision-making skills that allow trainees to see the world through the eyes of experts 
  • Trainees are given a scenario (that actually happened) and they come up with how they would personally respond to it, then they are presented with how the experts responded to it
    • Trainees tend to improve their pattern-matching to the experts by 25% in a single day of shadowboxing 
  • Gary started a company in 2015 called ShadowBox to train military, law enforcement, healthcare, social services, and petrochemical domains via shadowboxing techniques 

What Role Does Environment Play In Decision Making

  • Proactively structure the environment in a manner that reduces the difficulty of potential scenarios that may surface
  • The DARPA “Good Stranger” project studies police and military members that were good at diffusing conflict in an effort to extract and identify the behavior, techniques, and demeanor that made them special 
  • How to get voluntary compliance from a peer or subject: try to make the person trust you more at the end of the encounter than at the beginning 
    • How you carry yourself plays a large role in earning that trust 
  • Instead of gaining compliance through fear or intimidation, work to gain compliance through trust and faith
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Notes By Stan Rizzo

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