There is both an art and science to timing decisions.
In the book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell argued we should trust our snap judgments to make decision. He used examples from science, advertising, medicine and music to show that spontaneous decisions were as good as, and often better than, carefully considered ones. While Blink became a best seller, the science behind it was not universally well reviewed.
In Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, Frank Partnoy makes a strong case for the opposite point of view. After interviewing more than 100 experts from different fields and examining several hundred studies, Partnoy claims most people don’t take enough time to make decisions. Using a Gladwell-esque style, Partnoy argues that the best decision makers – premier athletes, expert investors, and even popular comedians – hone the ability to wait as long as possible before deciding or acting.
While I’m writing this blog, I’m half-watching a professional baseball game which seems to reinforce Partnoy’s claim. While hitters certainly need to practice their swings, the hitting mechanics provide little differentiation between hitters. The best hitters are the ones who wait the longest to make a decision about whether or not to swing at a pitch. They gather information about the ball as quickly as possible, leaving time to make a decision on whether and how to swing.
In an Financial Times article, Partnoy uses a tennis example to explain a parallel situation in business. He writes:
One of the most surprising aspects of Lehman’s collapse was that the firm’s leaders had tried so hard to understand the problems associated with their own decision-making. In autumn 2005, Lehman’s senior managers hired a group of experts to teach four dozen top executives how to make better decisions. Malcolm Gladwell, who had just published Blink, gave the capstone lecture.
These managers sat for a cutting-edge course on the timing of decisions. Then, they rushed back to their offices and made some of the worst decisions in the history of financial markets. Three years later, their firm was gone.
If Lehman had lived until today, its decision-making course would look radically different. The core message of recent research is the opposite of the one Lehman’s executives learnt in 2005: the longer we can wait, the better. And once we have a sense of how long a decision should take, we generally should delay the moment of decision until the last possible instant. If we have an hour, we should wait 59 minutes before responding. If we have a year, we should wait 364 days. Even if we have just half a second, we should wait as long as we possibly can. As the matches at Wimbledon will illustrate, even milliseconds matter.
There is science to support both Gladwell’s claim we should trust our gut assessments and also Partnoy’s claim we should wait until the last possible moment to make a decision. So which one should you do? Not surprisingly, the answer depends on the situation you are in.
Some business decisions are time critical with incomplete information. Gut decisions are often the best way forward. Other business decisions require time-consuming careful research, in which delays will yield more information and better decisions. Knowing which is which is the art of decision making.
There is both an art and science to timing decisions. If you’re unsure which to use, my advice is wait as long as you can and then act decisively.