“If worse comes to worst . . .”

There are several key phrases that Americans use when making quick, suboptimal decisions. Some of these include:

At the drop of a hat – without any hesitation, instantly; with the slightest provocation. 

Back to the drawing board – when a decision fails and a new one needs to be made. First known use: 1941 in a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine.

Back to square one – when a decisions fails so completely that you have to go back to the beginning and start over.

Cross that bridge when you come to it – deal with a problem when it arises, not before. First known use: 1851 in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Golden Legend.

If worse comes to worst . . . –  if the worst possible outcome of the bad decision occurs, the person saying it will do whatever he/she says next. First known use: 1596. Example: We’ll put this to market now, and if worse comes to worst we’ll refund our customers’ money.

Rash decision – a decision made without considering all of the details.

Kahneman Quotes

Daniel Kahneman is an Israeli-American psychologist notable for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making, for which he was awarded the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

His empirical findings challenge the assumption of human rationality prevailing in modern economic theory. In the same year, his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which summarizes much of his research, was published and became a best seller.

„True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes.“

„We think, each of us, that we’re much more rational than we are. And we think that we make our decisions because we have good reasons to make them. Even when it’s the other way around. We believe in the reasons, because we’ve already made the decision.“

„There’s a lot of randomness in the decisions that people make.“

„Nobody would say, ‘I’m voting for this guy because he’s got the stronger chin,’ but that, in fact, is partly what happens.“

„It is the consistency of the information that matters for a good story, not its completeness. Indeed, you will often find that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern.“

„We’re blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know. We’re not designed to know how little we know.“

„We are very influenced by completely automatic things that we have no control over, and we don’t know we’re doing it.“

Intuition vs. Analysis

According to a report in the Journal of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes by researchers from Boston College, George Mason University and Rice University: Intuition may be just as effective in decision-making as an analytical approach. And sometimes more efficient and effective, depending on the decision-maker’s level of expertise on the subject at hand.

“What we found demystifies a lot of the information out there that says intuition isn’t as effective as if you sat down and walked through an analytical approach.”

Testing intuition against analysis, the study found that people can trust their gut and rely on intuition when making a broad evaluation in an area where they have in-depth knowledge of the subject. As people move up in organizations, they’re often required to make judgments that may not be readily solved by rational analysis. 

Intuition has long been viewed as a less effective approach to critical reasoning when compared to the merits of analytical thinking. Yet as society and businesses place a greater emphasis on the speed and effectiveness of decision-making, the intuitive approach has been identified as an increasingly important tool.

Analytic decisions are great for breaking things down into smaller parts, which is necessary for a math problem. But intuition is about looking at patterns and wholes.

Spock. McCoy. Kirk.

In his blogpost Stoicism & Star Trek: Think like Spock – Act like Kirk Jen Farren at the University of Exeter writes:

„Gene Roddenberry (creator of Startrek) says that he deliberately: ‘Took the perfect person and divided him into three, the administrative courageous part in the Captain (Kirk), the logical part in the Science Officer (Spock) and the humanist part in the Doctor (McCoy).’“

Farren then quotes Stephen Fry: „You have the Captain in the middle, who is trying to balance both his humanity and his reason. And on his left shoulder, you have the appetitive, physical Dr. McCoy. And on his right shoulder you have Spock, who is all reason. And they are both flawed, because they don’t balance the two, and they’re at war with each other, McCoy is always having a go at Spock. And Kirk is in the middle, representing the perfect solution.“

Kirk tries to balance emotion and reason, but he never loses sight of taking action. His choices and actions make him take risks for the common welfare, even when the purely logical thing might be to do nothing. In the words of Captain Kirk himself: ‘Gentlemen, we’re debating in a vacuum. Let’s go get some answers.“

People Driven

Americans are skeptical of business processes that attempt to replace human judgment. They believe that decision-making is inherently human. Drawing on personal and professional experience, intuition and judgment, a person or a group of persons makes the decision. Processes have neither experience, nor intuition nor judgment.

Analysis defines the situation, the options, their respective risks and benefits. Experience informs about how the situation could/should be dealt with. And intuition influences the decision.

Decision: A conclusion or resolution reached after consideration; the action or process of deciding something or of resolving a question; a formal judgment; the ability or tendency to make decisions quickly; decisiveness. From Latin decidere “determine”.

Analysis: Detailed examination of the elements or structure of something, typically as a basis for discussion or interpretation; the process of separating something into its constituent elements; the identification and measurement of the chemical constituents of a substance or specimen.

External Factors

Decisions are not made in a vacuum. American decision-making allows itself to be influenced by external factors. External customers, company-internal partners, suppliers, changing management priorities, budgets and manpower all can have impact on individual decisions. American decision making aims to be market-driven.

Market-driven in the U.S. means making decisions based on the market‘s rhythm. If necessary, Americans will skip over steps in their decision making approach.

To turn on a dime: To take a very tight turn, used especially for a vehicle; to change direction quickly. A dime is the smallest in size of American coins.

Experience: To encounter or undergo (an event or occurrence); to feel (an emotion); practical contact with and observation of facts or events; the knowledge or skill acquired by such means over a period of time, especially that gained in a particular profession by someone at work; an event or occurrence that leaves an impression on someone (a learning experience).

Down and dirty: Americans are not perfectionists. The goal is seldom the optimal decision, but instead the most effective decision under the given circumstances. Often timely decisions, even if suboptimal, are the best decisions. They can be corrected.

How fast?

The American tendency to work at a fast pace and aim for rapid results continues to confound Germans. They have difficulty identifying a logical and structured plan for action amongst their business dealings, and where Americans see hard work and flexibility in action, they suspect only chaos. When Germans feel overrun by American ‘decisionism’ and see their standards of quality and the rhythm of their own style of working as becoming endangered, this confusion can quickly transform into irritation.

A bad decision is better than no decision.” There are few Americans likely to disagree with this popular saying. Germans, however, would tend towards saying the exact opposite. Sometimes even a good decision will find no supporters.

From the American perspective, it is the client who is the most significant factor in determining  the deadline for a given decision. Americans value a client-oriented business model. Because Americans tend to operate under the assumption that this same dynamic exists in in Germany as well, they find it difficult to understand why their German colleagues would risk upsetting a customer over time wasted during the decision-making process.

Priorities and time factors can change during the process of making any decision. Americans prefer to divide this process up into multiple sub-processes or steps. The sequence of these steps must remain flexible – meaning that it should be possible to change their order, or even skip a step or two in between if necessary. From this point of view, the structured discipline of the German decision-making process can appear exceedingly rigid and in-flexible – occasionally appearing as though it would directly conflict with the purpose of the decision itself.

It is almost as though the decision-making process would be more important than the final decision. To Americans, the German approach of assigning so much importance to the process of making a decision as to possibly loose perspective of the final decision itself can seem rather paradoxical. For this reason, one might suspect that simple indecision is being masked by a seeming concern for ‘attention to detail’.

Of course the German understandings of process and customer relations play a role here (according to the motto: ‘The client wants a solution from us. Our processes guarantee a solution, so the client knows that he can wait.’) But surely there must be something more involved; Germans can see that during the process of making an important decision one must also make a series of decisions which are smaller, but not insignificant to the bigger picture. These decisions are key elements of a systematic (or self-perpetuating) approach, each de facto requiring more time for consideration.

Ultimately, whether or not the rebounding American approach – making quick decisions, then revising them just as quickly – is actually faster typically depends on the related events. ‘Wir haben mit Äpfeln und Birnen zu tun’ – you can’t compare apples and oranges (or pears). Nevertheless, there will always be those colleagues who will continue do do so, and continue to bicker.

Paragraph vs. Case

It is a well known fact that the German and American legal systems have fundamental differences between them. The modern German legal system is based on ancient Roman law, combined with a bit of French and old Germanic law, but all of it follows the paragraph law structure.

The American system is derived from the English case law tradition, which follows the law as it was laid out by judicial verdicts in actual previous cases. Key cases providing precedence are reviewed to determine how to continue.

Justice (Gerechtigkeit) and judgement are closely connected in the American system. Not just the concrete facts of the case, but also the circumstances are considered to be crucial information for the deliberations and verdict. These then must be interpreted with regard to the complex nature of the human existence.

A task which only persons with sufficient experience with life as well as people are capable of. This experience – or the wisdom that comes from such experience – is something which only older people can have.

This is why Americans are always astounded when they hear that in Germany relatively young people – in their early 30s – can become judges. The district attorneys that they see on German television look as if they were fresh out of law school.

According to the American understanding of judicial power, paragraph laws play a minor part. Case law is so difficult, precisely because it concern situations which are not found in a German book of federal law.

This is why American judges must be older people who are truly good and wise. Their process too involves stringent scientific methods of analysis, not unlike German paragraph laws. These, from the American perspective, can not deliver more than just the pure facts.

The ability to take these facts and interpret them, to make sense of them, this is what they view as true good judgement. Knowledge of methodology and analytical processes may support one’s good judgement, but can never amount to the equivalent.

Oxymoron

An oxymoron is a contradiction in terms, such as “cruel kindness”. For Americans, “a decision making process” is in many ways an oxymoron.

Processes can offer structure, consistency, overview, monitoring. At best they can support the creation of decision options. In the end, decisions are people-driven. Drawing on personal and professional experience, intuition and judgement, a person or a group of persons makes the decision.

Americans are skeptical of decision making processes, especially when they attempt to substitute them for people. Processes have neither experience, nor intuition nor judgement.

Impatience

According to a survey conducted in 2015, even though almost 80% of Americans consider themselves patient, a vast majority of them behave in ways that display incredible impatience. For example, 96% of Americans will consume food/drink that they know is hot enough to burn them rather than wait for it to cool. Additionally, 71% frequently exceed the speed limit and more than 50% won’t wait on hold for more than one minute.