When it comes to decision-making, context matters. As a leader, you are often called upon to make decisions on the basis of information, sometimes limited. But decisions cannot be made on the basis of data alone. Consider these situations.
Three different scenarios
If you were the bridge watchkeeper on a merchant boat, and at about 3 AM in the morning, you saw two skiffs with floodlights rapidly approaching at the stern, what would you think? Odds are that if you were just off the Pacific Coast of North America, you would assume that the approaching boats were the Coast Guard, rushing towards an emergency. However, if you were in the Gulf of Aden, the chances are high that you would sound the alarm, concerned that you were about to be attacked by Somali pirates. Context matters.
Two years ago, if you were in the bank and three young males entered wearing face masks, you’d probably think that you were about to witness a bank robbery. Fast forward to today, if you were to see those same three men enter the bank, you’d likely comment on how thoughtful these young men were about following COVID-19 protocols to keep everyone safe. Context matters.
It starts to snow – heavily – the flakes coming down so fast that everything seems to be white. If you were in Victoria, Canada (where it rarely snows), your first instinct would be dismay. “God knows what a terrible mess traffic will be on my commute home this afternoon!” But if you happen to be at the popular ski resort of Whistler, Canada, your reaction will probably be joy. “Fresh powder when I hit the slopes later!” Context matters.
You need data AND context
Decisions should never be made on the basis of data alone; it is critical that you also take steps to understand the background and the environment. If you have an employee who has been late to work for the last week, you cannot make a decision about disciplinary action unless you gather more information. You need to determine whether this employee is usually a top performer who has never been late before, or if s/he has been reprimanded previously for both subpar performance and tardiness. This information will help you make a better decision about what action you need to take with this employee.
If production levels at one of your manufacturing locations are down this month, you need to find out why? The action you take will be very different if the reason is a shortage in the input materials than if it is due to equipment breakdown.
If you want to make good decisions, you cannot take data at face value, you must ask more questions to understand the context.
In the spirit of learning from each other, I’d love to hear about your observations and experiences in making decisions when the appropriate context is not taken into account. Both good and bad, whether it was you, or someone else. Please add your comments below.
I often blog about how leaders can make better decisions. For past blog posts, search under Problem Solving Tools.