Keeping an Open Mind- Possibly a Bad Decision

14 Jul

This article seeks to explain the problems of keeping an open mind, it also seeks to offer a few tips of how to avoid the cognitive mazes an open mind can lead to.

Several articles ago, I said I would be covering the three frames of mind which determine the quality and relative success of decision making, managing uncertainty, and strategy. The three frames of mind were closed, adaptable, and finally, open, which I’ll discuss below.

Keeping an open mind, on the surface, sounds like a good idea. An open mind suggests that you’re keeping your options open, not being rushed into making a decision, and carefully weighing up evidence. On the other hand, being open minded can also mean being uncommitted, and this results in a great many options being identified, but none of these options being explored. This returns us to the Rudolph (2007) study of clinical decision making. To recap, Rudolph discovered three frames of mind which were used to generate decision making strategies when medical professionals were confronted with a complex and changing clinical scenario. The three frames of mind were closed, where a diagnosis was made and any contradictions were explained away; adaptable, where a diagnosis was made, explored, and adapted as new information presented itself, and open; where a professional flitted from one diagnosis to the next, never fully testing a single hypothesis. Rudolph referred to an open mind as “vagabonding”. With the array of options which face all of us every day, whatever type of decision we are looking to make, throw in the masses of data which can be used to generate even more options, then an open mind can become a maze; anyone is susceptible to vagabonding regardless of situation or task.

Herb Simon, the economist, psychologist, AI pioneer and Nobel laureate, highlighted that there were essentially two types of decision making strategy available to people. With potentially masses of data to process, we can either satisfice or maximize. Simon argued that it was not possible to weigh up all the many options and their consequences when we were confronted with decisions. No one is capable of reading the future, so our anticipation of how decisions will play out is based on limited knowledge; and because of this limited knowledge, a certain amount of intuition, or gut feeling, came into the equation.

As a result, Simon found that people would, to some degree, follow that gut feeling and satisfice- choose an option which was “good enough”. However, problems occur when people choose the other option and seek to maximize- endlessly search for non-existent perfect solutions.  If we now link the work of Simon to Rudolph, we can see that the medical professionals who selected a hypothesis which seemed plausible and then tested it (the professionals Rudolph categorised as adaptive), satisficed. The satisficers made a decision, tested it and adapted it.

By contrast, we can see that the medical professionals who maintained an open mind, sought to maximize, seeking a perfect diagnosis whilst making no diagnosis at all. Satisficing as an effective method of decision making has been located in other domains, amongst them, Klein et al (1989/ 2009) in their study of firefighter decision making. Instead of weighing up options, when confronted with a blaze, firefighters would intuitively select the first “good enough” option and adapt it. Applying an open mind to such a situation would significantly delay action as opposed to improving the outcome.

Although the majority of us do not put out fires or make clinical decisions, we might be put at greater risk of becoming an open minded maximizer as there are even less boundaries to sift options.  The vast amounts of data and choice we can factor into any decision can potentially put us into endless search mode, able to locate many things but critically evaluate nothing. This can encourage an open minded approach to decision making that is passive and results in being “stuck”. If the search for the perfect option involves discovering new information, which is no bad thing in itself, the process can become counter-productive as a faulty feedback loop gets inserted into the process. The counter-productivity occurs as the payoff of discovery, potentially becomes a reason to keep searching, as opposed to making a decision; this is the faulty feedback loop-search> find>search>find. If the priority is making a decision, don’t substitute that priority for searching because it’s easier in the short term. To put this in some context, below is a quote from a company I worked with which sums up perfectly the problems of an open mind whilst “marketing” the concept as a positive

“We needed to make a decision about 9 months…where the company was heading. Any decision would have done, we (the company) just needed some leadership. Instead we got this-wait and see strategy. The leadership decided we needed to see more data, which the customer results in Q3 would tell us what we should do, that, and this is the best…that this would reflect that we were customer orientated…so everyone has spent the last few months just waiting and guessing. It hasn’t done morale any good and leadership has just looked confused and weak”

When we are faced with selecting from a range of options we can become concerned with maximizing the selection. Imagine an everyday example, which dress, which watch, which car. In order to try and make the best choice, you set up a criteria in your head, but even when this criteria produces a selection you are still not happy, because you know how shaky your criteria was; it hasn’t convinced you that the best decision was made, there is still doubt, and so there are feelings of regret, anxiety and reflection on what could have been. This is what Klein (2003) referred to as the zone of indifference- a state where any choice would have done, but a feeling that the optimal choice had to be produced took over.

In these situations it is important to understand the role of satisficing. If each of the options contained a worse-case scenario which was tolerable\ manageable then the gut instinct, or selecting at random, is as good a guide as any to choosing between a range of options where each option would have been good enough. Organisational decision making may seem far too serious for this type of seeming flippancy, but the same rules essentially apply. Making a decision and then adapting it provides feedback on what is working and what isn’t; it quickly builds up the reservoir of experience and the ability to critically appraise future options. Passively keeping an open mind provides very little feedback, it can give you a lot of surface detail, but very little else. In short, satisficing beats open minded maximizing.

The following articles all discuss an open frame of mind

I began the Echo Breaker blog with a series of articles on Big Data, it was an area I was exploring with a colleague. A lot of what I wrote centred about how large data sets can create an illusion of a “one best answer”. This isn’t really an attack on Big Data but rather acknowledging the limits of its use. A potential problem for the future is that endless exploration of data sets could substitute for making a decision. Endless exploration of data sets might lead to some vital discoveries or better still, disprove some beliefs and theories, but it cannot be substituted for decision making. Two articles of this type below

A polemic which is focused on anti-maximizing when using large data sets

An article on the topic of the zone of indifference. When making a decision, the first step is analyse whether you\your organisation can handle the worst-case scenario which could arise from that decision. If you\your company cannot handle the worst case of any option, then you are not in a position to make a decision; it’s back to problem solving


Passive decision making, the result of an open mind, and how the concept produces cultures which are focused on taking orders as opposed to making decisions


Rudolph, J. (2003) Into the Big Muddy and Out Again. Error Persistence and Crisis Management in the Operating Room. Dissertation, Boston College

Summary of the above can be found in

Klein, G (2009) Streetlights and Shadows. Bradford Books

Klein (2003) The Power of Intuition. Currency books.

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

Simon, H. (1976), Administrative Behavior (3rd ed.), New York: The Free Press







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