East of West Decision Making

10 Feb

Human progress could be defined as people making connections between two things. These connections don’t always have to be accurate; they just have to be compelling enough to inspire action. When people act, then anything can happen, and anything could be discovered. So, as I’ve written before-movement is life, or at least progress. So what shapes a connection between two beliefs? What “plausible stories” (Weick, 1995), inspire action?

Connections are shaped by beliefs, and beliefs are shaped by experience, customs, education, culture and so on. So, someone going through a daily routine notices a cue, something out of the ordinary, and they make sense of it, they connect it, based on what they believe. Klein’s (1989) original studies into firefighter decision making illustrate this well- the firefighter sees a fire, recognises the blaze as a certain type of fire (from experienced based memory) and then locates any features (we’ll call them cues) which mark the “unique characteristics” of this fire. The cues the firefighter extracts produce the plan of action, further cues dictate improvisations to the plan, and all of this updates the firefighter’s beliefs on how to tackle this type of fire when certain cues are present. What the firefighter didn’t do was look for an accurate answer, just a plausible one; enough to get moving and increase their exposure to the fire; test and adapt, aggressive trial and error.

Now, in 2015, we probably like to think we know more about the world than we did, at random, 2-300 hundred years ago. Back then far more was uncertain and unknown and people had to create plausible stories, had to motivate action, in different ways. I had an insight into this recently whilst I was reading a graphic novel, East of West, by the excellent Jonathan Hickman. The story is a genre mashing western but this is the bit which struck me- 3 characters need to make sense of a mystery, there used to be 4 of them and they’ve noticed a cue-one of them is missing. So now they need to make sense of this cue, and this is what they do- they scatter a collection of bones, feathers, and other artefacts. The pattern these artefacts form gives them a plausible story. The artefacts are given meanings through beliefs (experience, culture, etc.), the pattern which the artefacts form creates cues-connections between each artefact which produces a plausible story. What follows is action.

So, back in the real world, in our past and still in our present, we did and can make connections between items which are strong enough to create a story which inspires action- scattering bones can be more than enough. Once the story is in progress, its accuracy is a secondary factor because learning should come from doing; this is why improvisation can beat research. The things we connect in 2015 don’t resemble bones most of the time; we like to think we’re more sophisticate than that. However, some data sets have no more intrinsic meaning than bones. This wouldn’t be so bad if it led to action, but quite often it just provokes more data collection in the search for a story which seems more accurate. This is a mistake, the best data you can get is from risk exposure, moving quickly and adapting, being close to the action. The key is to start from a good enough position and to use stressors, cues and obstacles as feedback loops to adapt both your plan and even the objectives. I think this used to be called management by walking around.

So, whether you are connecting bones, data, or tea leafs, the psychology is the same-you give meaning to things and make connections between them. The point I’m trying to make is-sometimes trading action and improvising, for accuracy and endless analysis, is a far better bet.


Weick, K.E. (1995) Sensemaking in Organizations. Sage.

Klein, G. A. (1989). Recognition-primed decisions in W. Rouse (Ed) Adanvances in man machine systems research. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, Inc. (Vol.5. pp.47-92).

Taleb, N.N (2013) Anti Fragile- Things which gain from disorder. Penguin


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