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Focus on deciding your own future for yourself, before somebody else does

April 8, 2013

Andy Murray moved up to second spot in the Men’s World Tennis rankings recently, but can he get to the number one spot? Moving up one place in the rankings might not be a big deal on most occasions, but it is when it means you are recognised as the best player in the world. Novak Djokovic, Murray’s long-time rival, currently has a significant lead at the top of the rankings.

Murray became world number two for the second time in his career, indicating he is winning a lot of matches, and being consistent. Besides the obvious physical qualities required to be a top tennis player, the mental approach is key, the main one being the time spent subconsciously assessing the trajectory, speed and movement of the ball, and what return to play.

Murray gains his advantage through his ability to execute the winning shot with more consistency.  Having decided what to play, he can position himself, swing his racket and hit the ball much more rapidly than most of his opponents. Decisive hitting of the ball is a result of judgement, instinct and decision-making, but the magic ingredient in reality, seems to be delay in making the decision on how to play the return.

I’ve observed that there seems to be a deliberate delay in making decisions in his play. Additional milliseconds are taken to observe the ball and his opponent’s situation, and hence more time to decide how best to respond. This suggests he delays his decision-making and takes extra time to gather and analyse information, a truly decisive advantage.

The paradox of tennis is that what looks like quickness is born of patience and reflection, whereby the top players look like they have more time. The game demands swift thinking, the entire decision-making experience can last milliseconds in which to assess information and reduce the risk that come with guesswork. Rush part one, observation and preparation for the choice of return shot, and you mess up part two, execution.

Decision making in tennis, like business, is in its purest form seems about not making a decision for as long as possible. Making quick decisions is often regarded as a sign of an effective leader, but I think this has perhaps missed the observation to be made from tennis, where apparent delay in not attacking the ball immediately creates an opportunity for decisiveness. The best players it seems to me are masters of adjustment, which is why they win more points and more games, as they make fewer errors.

Decision making in business is about balance – move forward in your thinking, then make adjustments in your thinking to leave yourself balanced and ready to move in either direction, enabling flexibility and agility, retaining more options than others. Later decisions are invariably better decisions.

It’s the same in comedy too, the pauses from a comedian in his delivery is because he’s gauging the state of readiness in the audience, making tiny adjustments to the calibration of the delivery of the final punch line, ensuring the maximum impact. Again, the best reactions are when the comedian gets his timing (decision making) right.

Legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis believed that timing of his decisions on what to play next when jamming was an act of instinct, a discovery. He knew that spontaneous decision-making (creativity) was the business of jazz. With less than 1% of the notes on the written score, Davis improvised the rest: I didn’t make a decision on what I was going to do until the last minute, it didn’t feel like pressure, it just made me play the right notes.

And consider Chess, where there are official time controls on the game which steer decision making: 90 minutes for the first 40 moves followed by 30 minutes for the rest of the game, with an addition of 30 seconds per move starting from move one.

In business, we’re often under pressure to make a quick decision, colleagues looking for direction expecting an instant, decisive verdict – because if we delay, our rivals will get there first. The hard thing is summoning the courage to take your time, to fight against the feeling that you have to rush to meet expectations.

I tested this hypothesis at a recent board meeting, where crucial decisions were needed on pressing matters. Many colleagues were restless, almost agitated. They huffed and puffed boisterously. However, the CEO spoke quietly and languidly, thinking outloud, outlining the options, weighing up the pros-and-cons – but not leaping to a decision. Noticeably when he spoke the others listened intently, the cacophony ceased, colleagues craned forward to hear his every word, anticipation building to hear his decision.

Business leadership demands many qualities, being bold and gutsy to make the big calls early is seen to be a vital characteristic, but is success achieved by making decisions faster than the competition, or by quickly identifying opportunities, rapidly zeroing in on the best ones, and then pursuing them relentlessly? There’s a growing body of evidence that rapid decision-making isn’t the key to success, and that by waiting that little bit longer, you are better able to make the right decision and wrongfoot competitors.

We see the same story in elite military pilots.  The OODA cycle – Observe, Orient, Decide, Act – is grounded in studies of the way they succeed in dogfights. The winner isn’t the one who reacts most quickly, but the one who decides how to act most effectively. To do this, they give themselves time, and they try to act in ways that deprive their opponents of time.

The timescales may be different in business, but the same principles apply. Successful people are going to be the ones which:

  • Build the ability to execute rapidly If you can’t execute, it doesn’t matter what decisions you make. As importantly, if you can execute well, that frees up time to make better decisions.  Successful people are going to devote a lot of time and thought to improving their execution (Murray trains 35 hours a week when not playing tournaments). They’ll build a realistic level of confidence in their ability to act, so they don’t knee-jerk a decision when under pressure and hence feel forced to decide too rapidly.
  • Build reflection into their decision-making processes Most of us are under pressure to act to show that we’re doing something.  But as well as building the ability to execute, we need the ability to stop and think. We need to become comfortable with inaction, with watching and waiting for the right moment to spring.  Most of us are really bad at this, we simply want to make a decision and get stuck in.
  • Understand the last possible moment There comes a point when it’s too late to act.  The exact point is determined by our ability to execute and by the decision context (what others are doing, how the environment is changing, etc.).  Beyond that point our actions are guaranteed to fail, and even before that last possible moment, the cost of inaction may start to grow rapidly as options become more expensive and eventually get closed off. Timing is everything in decision-making.

Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow identified the two systems that make up what he calls the machinery of the mind, reflecting on the speed of decision making. Kahneman presents our thinking process as consisting of two systems. System 1 (Thinking Fast) is unconscious, intuitive and effort-free; System 2 (Thinking Slow) is conscious, uses deductive reasoning and is hard work.

System 1 thinking includes an ability to recognise patterns in a fraction of a second, so that it will automatically produce adequate solutions to challenges. An even more remarkable accomplishment is expert intuition, in which after much practice a trained expert, such as a firefighter, can unconsciously produce the right response to complex emergencies. The classic example is the firefighting captain who correctly anticipates that a house on fire is about to explode and gets his team out in time yet cannot articulate why he knew that.

For Murray, as a tennis professional he finds himself in situations which Kahneman labels System 1, sufficiently regular to be predictable, in which Murray can train his unconscious pattern recognition mechanism to produce the right answer quickly, giving him that millisecond advantage – the speed of thought supports speed of movement.

Successful people develop an understanding of the impact of timing on their decisions.  They’ll manage this timing actively, not solely with a view to accelerating the decision, but more to find the right time to decide and begin acting. Not too fast. Not too slow.

How does this delay play out in different situations? We generally make decisions in one of three broad situations – routine, novel and crisis situations.

  • In routine situations, we understand how things work, so we can analyse the situation and choose the best option for action. In these cases, doing that analysis and delaying decisions until the last responsible moment makes a lot of sense, there is low risk and we are familiar with the scenario.
  • In novel situations, on the other hand, we don’t know enough to fully analyse what’s going on. We need to learn how things work, which requires action to test the environment and understand it more. So again it makes sense to delay our final decisions until we know more, otherwise we’d simply be making a random guess or uninformed choice without any real understanding of the situation. But the delay involves active learning rather than analysis.
  • In crises, we’re under immediate threat from something that’s happening, we need to act rapidly to stabilise the situation, buying time for further analysis and decision-making later.  So action must precede considered decision-making.

Decision-making is about more than appearing decisive, it’s about managing the context as outlined above.  Successful people are able to recognise these different circumstances, and adjust their decision-making strategies accordingly.

Business leaders show their mettle in many ways, but above all else they are made or broken by the quality of their decisions. Most leaders treat decision making as an event, but it’s not, its more of a process, with successful outcomes relying on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking, with personal nuances, rife with debate and choices. Making effective decisions is about discipline and good habits, building a process that works for you.

Ultimately it’s about a focus on making decisions about your own future for yourself, before somebody else does. I am paid to make decisions implies early interventions, but avoiding making quick, snap decisions is a quality shown by people, like Andy Murray, at the top of their game.

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