How to Make Better Decisions, Faster

How to Make Better Decisions, Faster

Daniel Kahneman, John Smoltz, and A.J. Pierzynski on why data and analysis are important, as long as you also develop a feel for whatever game you play.

Photo: Getty Images

Contemplation and reflection are important, but nothing ever gets done until you actually get started. In business (and in life), a bias toward action is important.

That’s why Jeff Bezos thinks most decisions should be made when you don’t have all the information you wish you had. As Bezos says:

Many decisions are reversible, two-way doors. Those decisions can use a light-weight process. Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70 percent of the information you wish you had.

Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible — one-way doors — and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before.

But most decisions aren’t like that — they are changeable, reversible — they’re two-way doors. If you’ve made a suboptimal two-way door decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through.

He’s right. Most decisions are reversible. But some aren’t.

Like which pitch to throw, and where, a decision made over two hundred times a game by Major League Baseball pitchers. Once released, you can’t get that pitch back — and you have to deal with the consequences.

Those decisions became more difficult when MLB instituted the pitch clock, a 15-second timer (20 if a runner is on base) designed to speed up the game’s pace of play.

It’s definitely worked. So far this year, the average game is 26 minutes shorter, and whether causal or not, game attendance and TV ratings are also up. Win-win.

But what about all the pitchers and catchers who have to make one-way door decisions in response to tighter time frames and shrinking “deadlines”? The same thing happens in business. Once you have the basic skills required to run a business, decision-making skills are often what separate great entrepreneurs from good entrepreneurs.

So how do you still perform at a high level when speed is not just preferable, but required?

That’s the question I asked two people perfectly positioned to know: A.J. Pierzynski, two-time All-Star, World Series-winning catcher, and longtime Fox Sports baseball analyst, and John Smoltz, Hall of Fame pitcher, Cy Young award winner, and Fox Sports lead baseball analyst.

Pierzynski knows more than a little about change. Over a 19-year career, he played for seven different organizations.

The first time he was traded, “I was actually in Hawaii at a wedding,” Pierzynski says. “I woke up at 7 a.m. and had 100 messages on my phone: parents, friends, team execs–that’s how I found out I had been traded from Minnesota to San Francisco.”

Over time, he learned to be a chameleon, reading each new situation and adapting to what his new team needed. If he was playing today, Pierzynski says he would welcome the pitch clock, even though he feels catchers have been more affected by the rule change than pitchers.

“I could slow down the game,” he says, “since the pitcher had to wait for my sign. I could take a deep breath, walk around, talk to the umpire. Now, it’s a little more like speed chess. Catchers have to think three or four pitches ahead, and yet also adjust to what happens in each moment.”

While that might make pre-game preparation even more important, Pierzynski feels the catchers who have adapted the best aren’t necessarily more prepared. Instead, they’re better at reading the game and making quick decisions.

Smoltz agrees.

“There was a different approach 10 or 20 years ago,” he says. “There were more veteran catchers, more connectivity with pitchers. The information was the same, just not as exotic. Today, the feel for the game is not as prevalent because of data — and while you may know everything there is to know, the situation still may not fit all that information.”

Which means some teams will benefit from the new rules more than others; after all, a change that affects everyone isn’t a disadvantage unless you make it a disadvantage.

“Baltimore has adjusted already,” Pierzynski says. “They have great young players who were used to the new rules in the minor leagues. The Rays can plug and play because they bring up so many guys from the minor leagues who have already been through it. Overall, the Rays are on top of every little thing. They’re great at adjusting to whatever is happening in the game.”

Some teams will also be willing to rely on experience and feel, rather than simply on data, even though that can be a riskier approach.

“You don’t get fired if you don’t deviate from the scenarios planned out,” Smoltz says. “If you’re just a conduit from the top, or if you always use data to back up a decision, someone else was wrong. Or the data was wrong. But when you don’t deviate from the information or the plan, when you don’t balance what your eyes and your experience tells you, you run the risk of not reaching the ultimate level.

“Sometimes a team wins the World Series because they let their eyes make decisions the data or analytics would never have made. Over a 162-game season, following the data might work. But in a best-of-seven series, sometimes you have to toss aside the guidelines and adapt to that specific situation.”

Also oddly enough, research bears out blending intuition with data.

According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, “intuition is thinking that you know without knowing why you do. Like quickly scanning three resumes and, without thinking too hard, picking the best candidate. Like quickly scanning long checkout lines at the supermarket and deciding, without thinking too hard, which is likely to be the quickest.”

That’s how Navy SEALs intuitively respond to new or changing conditions; their hundreds of hours of training and debriefing create a storehouse of experience. That’s why Sully decided, within seconds, to land in the Hudson River.  That’s why a physician’s gut feel can have greater diagnostic value than most signs and symptoms.

As Friederike Fabritius and Hans Hagemann write in The Leading Brain: Neuroscience Hacks to Work Smarter, Better, and Happier:

Although there’s a common misconception that intuitive decisions are random and signify a lack of skill, the exact opposite is true. Intuitive decisions are often the product of years of experience and thousands of hours of practice.

They represent the most efficient use of your accumulated experience.

Smoltz says it took him three years in the major leagues to have a feel for the game. After that, he called his own pitches for the rest of his career, balancing analysis and trends with in-game feel.

Which is what you want your employees to do. Provide information. Provide data. Provide processes and guidelines.

But leave room for decision-making flexibility so they can develop their own feel for your “game,” because then they will sometimes make decisions you might not have made.

But you will still be glad they made.


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