Psychologists believe the law of least effort applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. In other words, the brain tends to take the most undemanding course of action if presented with several ways of achieving much the same goal.
Many of us will recognise this unfortunate trait from our decision-making endeavours. How often have we been confronted by a problem of substance and treated it as a triviality? How often have we rejected the stresses and strains that careful judgment obliges and instead defaulted to the nearest plausible option?
Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman discusses the issue in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, in which he proposes that the brain has two systems – the first swift but error-prone, the second deliberate but tougher to employ. We like to believe we favour the second, suggests Kahneman, but its duties are in the main confined to rubber-stamping the quick-fix answers that the first idly churns out.
Although they may prove perfectly adequate in everyday circumstances, these mental shortcuts are hardly a dependable platform for decision-making at an organisational level. After all, if Kahneman is right, they are the corollaries of our inherent laziness. Yet in many organisations acting in haste is celebrated, with those who specialise in speed held up as role models of efficiency and purpose and those who dare to deliberate derided as dawdlers and vacillators.
Much of this bizarre state of affairs stems from the assumption that choices come ready-made and neatly packaged. There exists an alarmingly widespread conceit that any problem, irrespective of size or complexity, can be solved via nodding acquaintance with some sort of magical catalogue of fully formed and available options. Rattle through the list, take your pick and issue the order – job done.
We can underline the disturbing shortsightedness of such a philosophy by comparing decision-making to betting on a horse race. The latter also requires no more than an educated selection from a range of ready-made, neatly packaged, fully formed and available options, yet we rightly refer to it as gambling. If an organisation lives or dies by its decisions, as is routinely the case, then it deserves to do so on the basis of a process more reliable than a punt on the 4.30 at Kempton Park.
The truth is that hindsight, though undoubtedly the wonderful thing we are regularly assured it is, is no match for foresight. This being so, we would do well to re-orientate our decision-making ethos accordingly. We should not be wringing our hands and asking ourselves: “What if we had done this?” We should be scratching our heads and asking ourselves: “What if we were to do this?”
So how do we develop a more prescient and productive outlook? The first step towards developing a comprehensive range of would-be solutions – as opposed to the off-the-rack array mentioned earlier – is to understand fully the question at hand, especially if it is a complicated one, for deconstruction must necessarily precede reconstruction. Ideally, we should open our minds to radical interventions instead of being inexorably drawn to the kind of incremental responses that a knee-jerk approach encourages.
The way is then clear to generate lots of ideas. These should be put forward secure in the knowledge that the vast majority will be bad, since the fact is that people very seldom miraculously conceive a “great idea”. We might begin with only a bit of a good idea, which, alongside a bit of another good idea and an improvement to a suspect idea and a reaction to a completely ridiculous idea, will form the makings of a feasible idea. It is only by having an abundance of ideas and gauging the worth of every last one of them that we eventually identify the best. This is how creativity works.
An interesting aspect of such a technique, aside from the mental stimulation and sheer fun that it entails, is that it could be demonstrable. Because it is rigorous, this type of method arguably lends itself to a checklist-like system – in essence, an official log of procedural diligence – that might not only shape how choices are made but, just as importantly, help define how they are regarded in retrospect. Might we one day be able to Kitemark our decisions?
Of course, critics will moan about the additional demands on time, energy and, above all, finances. And it is right to concede both that creative problem-solving is relatively resource-hungry and that even the most determined bid to consider every “what if” before rather than after the event cannot guarantee ultimate success. But even complaints about return on investment, with their unmistakable focus on the short term, smack of the law of least effort.
The reality is that sometimes it pays – literally and figuratively – to think for the long term, which is why two age-old maxims ineluctably spring to mind. The first is known to all, even though we too frequently ignore it: “Haste makes waste.” The second, which may be less familiar but is nonetheless supremely relevant, is one of the wisest warnings ever to emerge from Hollywood: “You can have it good – or you can have it on Tuesday.”
Martin Binks is the former dean of Nottingham University Business School and a Professor of Entrepreneurial Development at its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. firstname.lastname@example.org