Making Decisions under Pressure

12 Mar

Pressure has a tendency to narrow focus and fixate your view. When your ancestors felt pressure from being hungry or cold then the narrowing of focus and the related physiological responses, the motivation to action, was a good thing. When this natural response kicks in at the office, pressure can tunnel your vision on a particular narrative, data set or belief. However, unlike your ancestors this focus may not be as simple as getting food and warmth. It could involve where to invest, which product to back, who to promote or where to start drilling. When faced with pressure in a complex domain it’s vital to maintain a broad awareness of the situation, if not, then pressure can leave you fixated and making poor decisions; a form of cognitive bias.

When you are faced with organisational pressure to “get something done” it pushes you to find an answer quickly. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; great things can happen under pressure. However, awareness of the risks in your domain is crucial to reacting positively – you shouldn’t trade risk for speed, but you can learn to speed up your ability to identify and manage risk.

Pressure will speed up your pattern recognition, the desire to find and justify an answer\ solution. If you are dealing with a lot of data and\ or uncertainty (for example) then you are operating at a greater risk of finding a pattern to deal with the pressure, as opposed to using the pressure to find a superior option; and consequently, the potential to be taking on board hidden risks. With this in mind, how can you improve decision making under pressure? Below are a couple of methods

Klien’s (2003) prospective forecasting is a method where once you’ve completed your plan, or reached your decision, imagine its 12 months (or 10 minutes) into the future and your plan\ decision has been a complete catastrophe, then, in no more than 5 minutes jot down the history of that failure. This works because it’s far easier to anticipate problems when the outcome is known. It insures against the desire to prove yourself right and explain away contradictions.

The shock method (can be used after prospective hindsight) is when you imagine your decision or plan has run into immediate trouble and you analyse the fire doors you have available to contain the risk and adapt the decision- how fast can you react and adapt? How quickly can you communicate to the necessary people or rehash the data? In other words, how aware are you of the ability of your domain to cope the risks your decision could bring. If you can’t adapt the decision and contain the risk, you need to start your revising your plans.

Using these methods when making decisions or constructing plans under pressure can enable you to have some degree of mitigation over the cognitive biases pressures can bring. Experienced high performers (within certain professional domains) can intuitively analyse risk by having a very strong sense of what could go wrong, and they can do it fast. To develop greater sense making skills when it comes to risk, practice (using case scenarios) your pressurised decision making using the above methods and you’ll improve your ability to naturally detect errors- crucial when deciding under pressure.

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