More Thoughts on Imagination & Decision Making

27 Nov

There is a place before decision making which explains the reasoning behind a decision- sense making. Sense making is how we (human beings) interpret a situation; whether we perceive a situation as normal or abnormal, a challenge or a threat. The result of our sense making influences the choice we select, in other words, sense making drives the decision making process in a particular direction. The focus of sense making is placed on “what did you think was happening?” instead of “why did you do that?” (See Weick, 2009).

Investigating and developing sense making is crucial to the improvement of decisions, judgement and ultimately performance. I’ll return yet again to Kahneman’s (2011) two system thinking to illustrate; Kahneman argues that human beings process their environment using two systems, system one which reaches conclusions quickly and system two which verifies the system one conclusions. System one recognises a pattern and sends it to system two for verification- is the conclusion of system one good enough? This is the role of system two, to verify the fast conclusions of system one, however, to paraphrase Kahneman “system two is lazy” and so, if any reason can be found to verify the conclusion of system one, system two will verify it. For evolutionary reasons this process was a highly effective method for survival- scanning an environment, jumping to the conclusion that a shadow behind a rock was a sabre tooth, verifying that conclusion (good enough) and vacating the area as fast as possible. However, the complexity of modern life with the sheer number of people, technology, distractions and multiple data sources make this two systems thinking vulnerable.

As a counter force to this inherent human trait of verifying our conclusions (manifested in research subjects such as the confirmation bias) sense making has a lot to offer. Improving sense making means considering what could be beyond the familiar, in other words, it calls for injecting system two with imagination to focus on nuances, subtle changes and possibilities never before encountered, this is opposed to verifying a pattern as “more or less the same as last time”. An informative illustration can be found in a quote from the enquiry of the intelligence services which followed the tragedy of the 9\11 attack on New York-

“Imagination is not a gift usually associated with bureaucracies…It is therefore crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing the exercise of imagination. Doing so requires more than finding an expert who can imagine aircraft will be used as weapons” (Norton, 2004).

Examining the critical and imaginative capabilities of a person and organisations sense making reveals the culture and consequent effectiveness of decision making. Another relatively well known Kahneman research concept is- What You See Is all There Is, this means that human psychology jumps to, and verifies, conclusions based on what can be seen alone (see Kahneman, 2011). Sense making is the ability to imagine what is NOT there, what could be, and the potential for small changes to yield monumental outcomes. Expressed in another way, the starting point for improved sense making is retaining doubt in conclusions. By retaining doubt the sense making process is started along the chain of- what else could that mean? How could I be wrong? This is imagination in play and essential for successfully managing uncertainty.


The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (New York: Norton, 2004), p.344.

Weick, K.E. (2009) Making Sense of the Organisation: The Impermanent Organization. Volume Two. Wiley

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow, Allen Lane

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