Thinking Fast & Slow: How to make smarter decisions

Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ has prompted many people to stop and think. In particular, it has prompted them to stop and think more slowly using what Kahneman terms System 2 thinking (reasons and logic) rather than System 1 thinking (intuition). Now some of you might say this is common sense, but I would caution you not to jump to conclusions (system 1 thinking). Kahneman is a smart guy. You don’t get to win a Nobel Prize by stating the obvious; or at least not unless you back it up with lots of research and evidence (system 2 thinking).

More seriously, how can coaches use Kahneman’s work to drive better decision-making for our clients? The article ‘Outsmart Your Own Biases’ in this month’s Harvard Business Review (HBR) gives us a clue. The article highlights a number of different strategies to reduce our reliance on intuition (system 1 thinking) and increase the effectiveness of rational analysis (systems 2 thinking). All the strategies are intended to broaden our thinking through asking ourselves ‘bigger, tougher questions’. However, one strategy was notable by its absence: get a coach! After all, why struggle asking yourself bigger, tougher questions when you can get someone else to do it for you? Seems obvious to me, but maybe my impetuosity is leading me astray (systems 1 thinking)?

thinking fast and slow

So what makes for a bigger, tougher question? The HBR article challenges us to think broader in three different areas; the future, our objectives and our options. As coaches, here are some example questions that will help your clients slow down and engage system 2 thinking:-

Thinking about the future:

  • Can you give me three different scenarios as to how this situation will unfold?
  • Let’s assume there’s a different way of looking at this, what else might happen in the future?
  • If you go forward five years and look back on this decision, how do you think you will assess it?
  • If an external consultant worked on this issue, what conclusions do you think they would come up with?

Thinking about objectives:

  • Can you break this goal down into a series of sub-objectives?
  • How about you write down all the objectives you can think of and I will do the same and then we can compare notes?
  • How about you take this list of objectives to your next management meeting and discuss them with your team?

Thinking about options:

  • Let’s take a step back here, what are the bigger picture options you have?
  • What assumptions are you making that may be limiting your options?
  • What would be the opportunity cost of making this choice?
  • Let’s assume you can’t choose any of these options, what else could you do?

Finally, we should note that system 2 thinking is easier to engage and more effectively conducted when we are relaxed. If our clients are stressed, time-pressured and tired then it is more likely they will rely upon system 1 thinking. This finding should reinforce the many coaching practises we use to create a relaxed thinking environment for our clients. The challenging questions listed above assume we have first relaxed our clients through building trust, listening and empathising in the earlier stages of our coaching work.

So there you have it – a system 1 style summary on how to avoid system 1 thinking! It’s a good example of the irony that pops up whenever you explore this type of work. None more so than when the authors of the featured HBR article conclude their piece with the following words – ‘As a rule of thumb, it’s good to anticipate three possible futures, establish three key objectives and generate three visible options for each decision-making scenario.’ A rule of thumb (system 1 thinking) for system 2 thinking! Nice.

Nevertheless, I hope this brief exploration has given you some insight into Kahneman’s work and how to apply it in coaching. If it all seems a little confusing then take solace in the wise words of a colleague of mine who, upon reflecting on the significance of Kahneman’s work, said – ‘it’s all very well, but I still maintain that decision-making isn’t rocket science ….unless you’re making rockets’.

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