Decision Making: Check in with Your Body

Decision making is a critical and complex process.  Unconscious drives and biases, interpersonal issues, fear of making a mistake, over confidence, increased tendency to misunderstand the nature of fact and truth, and too much or too little data and experience are all factors.  It occurs in personal relationships, in politics and government, in organizations, and in projects.  Here we address projects, though the same principles apply across the board.

Intuition and Analysis

Decision making involves intuition and analysis.  These are referred to as System 1 and System 2 modes of thinking (Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow).  System 1 is fast, intuitive, and unconscious.  System 2 is slow, controlled, and analytical.

As we move further into data centered decision making in business, we must be careful to not devalue the intuitive approach.  As we let emotions and rhetoric drive decision making, we must not ignore the data and analysis.  We must avoid ego-driven divisiveness to join forces to collaboratively confront decisions.

Effective decision making relies on the self-awareness that supports blending two modes of thinking.

Values and Goals

Decision making begins with each individual decision maker.  To be effective they must have the self-awareness to consider their own biases, values and goals.  Are they interested in the best decision for the project and organization or do they want the decision to go their way to satisfy their need to lead.

Assuming the intention is to come up with a decision that is most likely to turn out well for project stakeholders, the individual opens their mind to input from all available sources and commits to objectivity.  At the same time, they must sense their “gut feel” and make sure it is leading them to a rational (fulfilling personal goals) and reasonable (pragmatic balance between personal goals and fairness) decision.

Left and Right Brain Thinking

Project management has tended to focus on left brain dominance – facts, logic, analysis, sequential processes, numbers, and words.  This is System 2 slow thinking.  It requires, time, skill, and effort.  The right brain is the source of intuition (System 1 thinking).  It brings together experience with non-linear, big picture, creative, visual, patterns, emotions, ambiguity and implied meanings.  Intuition operates quickly and mostly below the surface – unconsciously.

Over time, there has been a recognition that project managers must value and engage both right and left brain thinking in their work.  Decisions made based on analysis alone are as likely to work out as poorly (or well) as decisions made based on intuition alone.

Body Awareness

To fully engage the intuitive mode of thinking, bring body awareness into play. Body awareness recognizes where the body is in space.  It perceives the subtle and not so subtle sensations of the body – for example movement, the weight of the body against your chair, the way the air feels against your skin, your mood, or the feelings triggered by the presence of others and your surroundings.

Body awareness brings System 1’s intuitive thinking, which is normally unconscious, to consciousness.  It works in decision making by providing a check on the results of analysis – Does it feel right?  It provides insight into the degree you trust the other parties in the process – Are they being honest?  Do they know what they are talking about?

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Following Your Gut

As Edward De Bono points out in his Six Thinking Hats approach, feelings, emotions, are considered without explanation as part of a robust decision-making process.

For example, you are working with a small team charged with deciding about which of two design options to use.   You have created a grid to compare the options based on cost, development time, risk, and fit in an existing design context.  Estimates and risk assessments have been prepared by assigned individual team members.  They have spent time and effort to come up with the estimates and presented their findings to the team.

Based on a weighted scoring approach Option A seems the logical choice.  It costs far less than Option B, takes about the same amount of time and is about as risky.  its only short coming is the fit with the overall architectural design.   The other team members are ready to decide for option A, but you are not sure.  Your intuition is telling you that something is not quite right.  It is telling you that in the form of an uncomfortable feeling in your belly.

You are not ready to decide and need more time to see if your gut feeling is telling you something that will change the decision.  You can ignore the feeling or take the risk of bringing it out to the group.  It is a risk because you fear that you might be ridiculed for not believing the facts, overruled, or that you might come into conflict with other team members.  These fears manifest as physical sensations, and if you are aware of your body, you will be conscious of them, otherwise you might either dismiss them and plunge ahead or just go along with the majority.

Your decision-making training reminds you that keeping quiet about your misgivings about the decision and you tell your teammates that you think the team should spend some more time on this to question the estimates and assessments and the weights used in the process.  At the same time, you question the source of your feelings.  Are they based on past experience? Are they accurate or are they coming from a place of discomfort with uncertainty or a bias against the person who made the cost estimate?

Regardless of the outcome, the point is that increasing awareness of your physical sensations strengthens your decision-making ability.

Cultivating Body Awareness

A great way to increase body awareness is a practice focused on sensations.   You can blend this simple mindfulness exercise into your day for a few seconds or minutes at a time, practiced anywhere at any time.  It brings you to the present moment, promotes relaxed focus and cuts through distractions.  You might set an alarm to remind you during the day or do it for a few seconds whenever the phone rings or you get a text.

Do it as a formal practice, to accelerate the blending of body awareness into your life so it becomes natural and requires no effort.  Find a quiet place and dedicate a set time (from five to forty-five minutes) to practice.  You will find it relaxing and it will improve your concentration.

The practice:

  • With your eyes open or closed
  • Feel the sensation of the weight of your body against your chair or your feet against the ground.  Feel the air against your skin. Feel the sensations of your breathing – the rising and falling of chest or abdomen, air passing through you nostrils
  • Notice the movement from feeling to thinking (labeling, commenting, etc.) and gently but firmly come back to the feeling
  • Feel what it is like to be present
  • Again, if your slip into thinking about what you are feeling, come back to sensations, to presence.

Coming back to sensations when distracted cultivates focus.  The more you do it the less you will slip away into unplanned mental side-trips and the shorter the side-trips will be.

Don’t make it a chore, there are enough of those around.  Think of it as a mini-vacation and a way to bring your attention to your body so you can pick up the signals it sends about how you feel about your decision.  Fold your feelings into the decision-making process along with analysis.

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George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, PMP, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.