Some Stuff on Decision Making and Sense Making

16 Jun

I’m about to consolidate the research and thinking on the echo breaker blog. My plan is to write up the key themes as a series of structured articles and then create an eBook. This is the first, and covers what research questions I focus on-

Examining decision making can tell you everything about how a person reasons, notices, ignores, prioritizes, holds on, let’s go and makes use of resources available to them. Decision making also tells you about how a person solves problems, identifies and overcomes barriers, and how they deal with unexpected, non-routine events and how they improvise and innovate. In other words, examining how people make decisions tells you a lot; it tells you a lot about people, jobs, buying and selling, organisations and technology.

The part of decision making I like to focus on is sense making. Sense making is the process just before a choice is made, and is basically focused on how people join the dots in a situation. The dots I like to focus on are dots which contain risk, and these are the research questions I ask myself- what risks were noticed, which risks were ignored? What actions did this sense making produce, what plans did people make? What did people expect to happen, and how did they respond to what actually happened? These questions tell me about what happens when great looking plans and very high confidence meet a very messy and unpredictable reality.

Straight away I need to draw a distinction between risk and uncertainty. I’ll go into it in more detail later, but it’s a useful short cut to think of the difference in this way-risk is what we know based on what has happened in the past, uncertainty is what might, or might not happen in the future, we can only guess. For example, we know slot machine pay-out ratios, so you can assess that environment with some certainty and calculate the risk\ reward, this is a risk environment. Uncertainty is about what is going to happen next in systems where we cannot calculate with any true confidence. These are environments which contain human behaviour, and result in phenomena like stock market crashes and bubbles, they are also natural environments which involve events such as earth quakes and avalanches. All we can do is take guesses and formulate strategies based on these guesses.

It is our confidence in these guesses and the strategies they produce which fascinates me. If I could put it in a nutshell I would say- how do people respond when they don’t really know what’s going to happen next. This question covers the reluctance of an older adult to use the internet in an age when the services they need can only be accessed online. The question covers an armed response unit called into a city centre to face an armed civilian. The question covers which products to back, which stocks to buy and sell, hide or run in a zombie apocalypse, which medicine to administer or when to break or follow procedure. Every day, we are faced with the unknown, and the strategies we use to navigate this uncertainty, in situations of varying intensity, are what defines us.

Over the coming months, I’ll attempt to tackle this subject in a coherent, structured way, which presents leading research in the field, and also some of my own research and thinking. I’ll add as many easy to use hints and tips as I can.

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