Most of us in business are strongly driven by the action bias. And if not by the bias, then by our boss or clients. In other words, when you’re stuck in a tough situation, do something. Don’t just stand there; do something. I suspect Yoda had the typical business response to being stuck: “Do or do not. There is no try!” In other words, do it wholeheartedly or don’t do it at all.
Doing something, however, can be a mistake. While there are times to strike, when you’re really stuck, wait. . . . And think.
Because the action bias is so deeply entrenched and the perceived demands so demanding, few take the time to think. In a recent article, MIT’s Duncan Simester refers—incorrectly–to the “lost art of thinking,” arguing that by the time a person is promoted to a senior level, his thinking muscles have withered from disuse. That, however, is just another example of academic cluelessness. Rather, the reality is these professionals could never lose “the art of thinking” because they didn’t have it to begin with. As Cass Sunstein learned after 27 years as a University of Chicago faculty and an enlightening 4 years as an administrative head in the White House, faculty lack the sufficiently deep understanding of how things happen and get done in an organization.
In Tyler Cowen’s fascinating interview of him, Sunstein points out a major truth that applies just as well to thinking: Human beings don’t know how to navigate roads unless they are really trained. They might use heuristics for how to get to places—I certainly do—that often go wrong. And if you want to manage your savings portfolio, you might rely on rules of thumb that are going to make you less wealthy than would be good. Or you might have eating habits that aren’t so good, or you might get a mortgage that isn’t in your interest.
There’s really no reason whatsoever to think people know how to think unless they’ve been taught to do so. It isn’t a natural competency (other than eating, shitting and sex, what is?). Furthermore, if you look closely at college programs, you’ll find they don’t teach people how to think. That goes for most MBA programs as well.
As a PhD and a former university academic, I continue to greatly admire academic research that produces knowledge and fresh ideas that can be put to use. Yet for more than 30 years as a full-time consultant, I’ve learned, too, that the academy is clueless. Not only about how business gets things done, but also about what business people know and don’t know. Of course, without academia we’d still be living as Neanderthals. But let’s not treat academia’s indisputable value as gospel.
Both as a freshman and as a graduate student, I took courses in logic and argumentation that were supposed to teach me how to think. However, their models, built solely on the rationality assumption, were inadequate for learning how to think (rationality is often a big mistake). While I learned a number of decision-making models in university, it wasn’t until after college that I learned to think.