Four steps to making a decision in an instant

In the last minutes before the closing bell on a Friday, a stockbroker known for his nerves of steel suddenly dumps his high-risk portfolio - seemingly without regard to price or loss. At the bar that night, his colleagues openly rib him about his uncharacteristic behavior and privately wonder if he has lost his nerve when he admits he didn't have any research to back up the trades. The markets would be closed for a holiday weekend, but when they reopened on Tuesday, the market sank like a stone. The skittish stockbroker had been right, but how?

Perhaps due to the recent economic turmoil, the past months have seen a resurgence of interest in the ideals of gut reactions, intuition and other versions of the insight methods described in Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink! Business leaders, CEOs, physicians, disaster field responders, professional speakers and consultants use both linear and nonlinear decision making - logic and intuition - to create "blink" moments daily.

Most people know the linear decision making process because it is cultivated by our educational system. It is a system based on the collection of data to support a decision (if A and B then C, but if A and not B then D). Few people realize that we are all born as innately nonlinear thinkers.

What's A Blink Moment?

Nonlinear thinking is a four-step process consisting of:

  1. pattern recognition
  2. framing bias identification
  3. heuristic introspection
  4. empathy

Pattern Recognition

Pattern recognition is seeing the patterns and processes behind everything you do and have done. Remember that those with the greatest potential are those who are the most adaptable to any circumstance. They innately recognize the patterns that underlie another person's success and can replicate them with ease.

Bias Identification

Think about what happens before a manager goes into a meeting. Rarely will people walk into the situation "cold." They are briefed on whom they're going to meet and what they're supposed to accomplish. They draw certain preconceptions: This is the framing bias.

A very simple example is the 16-ounce glass that contains 8 ounces of water. Depending on your framing bias, you perceive the glass as either half full or half empty.

As long as you know what your framing bias is upfront, then you can allow the situation to develop organically. You can then take away your feelings and your impressions and use them as an analytical tool. That's the essence of heuristics, allowing responses and impressions to accumulate, then analyzing them.

Before you can fully immerse yourself in another's viewpoint, you need to shed your own framing bias. First, identify what your preconceptions are about the situation. Second, once you've identified them, clear your mind and explore the experience for the first time. What's your first impression? Are you reacting the way you are because of your preconceived ideas or because you are looking at the situation through fresh eyes?

Heuristic Introspection

Heuristics is an educational method in which learning takes place through discoveries that result from investigations made by the student; it's learning through exploration. Heuristic introspection is a nonlinear thought process in which you must be your customer. Much like the way an artist just knows if a painting or musical composition works, your employees should know what a customer wants.

When you think heuristically, you can better understand the customers' wants and needs. The next time you want to know how your customers would feel about a particular product or service, adapt a nonlinear, heuristic research approach and become a part of your own study base. Your focus group of one - you - will guide your initial thought process toward reaching your customers.


To empathize is to walk a mile in the shoes of your customers - that is to become one with your customers. Become part of the story, even if you aren't part of the product story. Generally, people like and dislike the same things. If not, you'd never have to wait in line for your favorite roller coaster at an amusement park. What do you feel? Listen to your gut - chances are your customers' guts would tell them the same thing. You may not identify with the problem, but you'll know what you need to do to make it feel right.

Decision Time

How can you now translate what you've discovered into a reproducible decision?

If you're developing an ad for jogging shoes, you need to think like a runner - even if you're not one. Why do people run? What is important to runners? How does running make people feel? After you've collected your personal research, you'll be able to speak in the first person as a runner. Pretend you're one of those successful fiction authors writing under a pseudonym. Tell your story like you live it. Now your customers will be able to personally connect with you because you've become one of them.

Why do people underestimate the power of this?

There are two reasons that nonlinear decision making and inductive reasoning are less valued than linear decision making and deductive reasoning. Both are based on the misperception that nonlinear decision making and inductive reasoning are inherently not reproducible, unverifiable, unpredictable and thus unreliable.

  1. Despite that fact that humans are born as empathic, introspective and unbiased "pattern-recognition machines," the vast majority become linear deductive decision makers. Through their educational experiences and the very basis of our scientific society, deductive is valued over inductive and linear over nonlinear.
  2. Unused, nonlinear and inductive skills atrophy. Those who undervalue what they can no longer easily do - think in a nonlinear fashion - believe that these skills are unlearnable. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In short, the problem is not that gut is unreliable or sample size of one (intuition) is too small. The problem is in those who devalue this innate human ability. The next time you're faced with a decision your gut and head argue about, don't be afraid to go with your gut, it just might know more than you think it does.
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