Noticing: An Elusive Decision-Making Skill

As a leader, you’re responsible for making key decisions each day. But how confident are you in your ability to notice all pertinent information?

If you’re like most leaders, you probably believe your perception skills are keen. As convinced as you may be, it’s possible that you’re overestimating your aptitude. What’s in front of you is rarely all there is.

“Leaders often fail to notice when they are obsessed by other issues, when they are motivated to not notice, and when there are other people in their environment working hard to keep them from noticing. ~ Harvard Business School Professor Max Bazerman,  The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See (Simon & Schuster, 2014)

Even if you have a superior grasp of common blind spots, you must remain alert for unplanned surprises and acknowledge your cognitive biases. Even the most venerated leaders make egregious mistakes, failing to notice—or even ignoring—essential data. As they handle an emerging crisis, they may ask: “How did this happen?” or “Why didn’t I catch this sooner?”

They should really be asking themselves:

  • “What information should I have gathered, beyond the basic facts?”
  • “What information would have helped inform my decision?”

Imagine your advantage in negotiations, decision-making and overall leadership if you could teach yourself to spot and evaluate information others routinely overlook.

More than a decade of research shows that leaders take no notice of critical, readily available information in their environment. This happens when they have blinders on, focusing on limited information they’ve predetermined to be necessary to make good decisions.

In my work as a consultant to organizations, I pay attention to business books about high-level decision-making required of senior executives. And there are many on the market.

But one that recently caught my curiosity is by Harvard Business School Professor Max Bazerman,  The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

Max Bazerman is the co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of numerous books, including Negotiation Genius with Deepak Malhotra, Blind Spots with Ann E. Tenbrunsel, and Judgment in Managerial Decision Making with Don A. Moore.

Drawing on real-world examples, from the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, Bazerman diagnoses what information went ignored in these situations, and why. He challenges leaders to explore their cognitive blind spots, identify any salient details they are programmed to miss, and then take steps to ensure it won’t happen again.

The book helps leaders spot the hidden details that can change your decision-making and leadership skills for the better, teaching you to:

  • Pay attention to what didn’t happen
  • Acknowledge self-interest
  • Invent the third choice
  • Realize that what you see is not all there is.

In this next series of posts, I’ll share with you some of what I’ve learned about the skill of noticing, and why so many leaders fall short when making important decisions.

What’s been your experience with failed decisions? I’d love to hear from you; you can contact me here and on LinkedIn.

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