Think Better, Think for Yourself

June 23, 2020

Think Better, Think for Yourself

Vikram Mansharamani, Ph.D., is a future-minded leader with a skill for spotting opportunities. As a lecturer at Harvard University and writer, he shares his expertise on how to balance our reliance on data and technology with common sense in his new book THINK FOR YOURSELF: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence. Here Mansharamani explores how leaders can better utilize data to think better.

HR People + Strategy: With the amount of business data increasing, how can leaders better take in the right data and not get overwhelmed?
Vikram Mansharamani: As the amount of information at our fingertips continues to grow at a breakneck pace, we’ve come to increasingly suffer from data overload. Signals are routinely lost in the deafening noise. How are we to harness the power of data analytics while also retaining an appreciation for the big picture? The key is to think for yourself and understand the constraints and limits of the information provided by technology and experts. We also need to pay more attention to the context in which we are making decisions. Are the insights from the data relevant in the current context? How might the context form which the data came be different? 
HRPS: How can leaders use systems and processes as a help and not become bogged in bureaucracy?
VM: Systems, processes and checklists can all help remove the emotion from a decision, but it remains critically important to not lose sight of the context. Far too often, we are so focused on the tree that we forget to notice we are in a forest. In the book I share a story about the CHADS2 checklist, which was used by a doctor to evaluate whether a patient should remain on a blood thinner. The checklist, while useful in most cases, missed a very obvious and critical point for the patient, namely that of family history. By avoiding the messiness of specifics and the corresponding bureaucracy it would necessitate, the doctor outsourced his thinking to the checklist; shortly thereafter the patient had a stroke. This is not to suggest we should avoid checklists, systems or processes, but it is to say we need to be mindful of their limitations. Another story I have in the book is about Captain Sullenberger of US Air fame. Believe it or not, there was a checklist in the cockpit for what to do if both engines fail. Except it was four pages long and intended to be read at 30,000 feet with plenty of time for the pilot and co-pilot to follow the recommended processes. Sully and his co-pilot put it aside and focused on the task at hand. They thought for themselves.
HRPS: Is focus overrated?
VM: I don’t know that focus is overrated or underrated, but it’s for sure misdirected. We need to think proactively about where we defer to technology or experts to allow us to frame our perspectives. It may be our level of zoom that is critical. We may be overly focused on some things that then causes us to miss critical developments in the context. Or alternatively, we may be so focused on the context that we neglect the actual events happening in front of our eyes. We need to mindfully manage where, how and upon what we focus. 
HRPS: What role does disobedience play in the world of business?

VM: I describe the military concept of “disciplined disobedience” to illustrate the power of a retaining a mission focus. In some circles, it has become routine for commanders to share with their subordinates the ultimate objective of the mission. The objective was to improve the agility and flexibility of the fighting force by allowing them to think for themselves in real-time, perhaps even ignoring protocols for expected behavior. The concept elevated winning the war over succeeding in battle. Is there relevance for this lesson in business? I think so. The key is for leaders to be transparent in terms of what they are trying to achieve, rather than prescribing what they believe is the best approach to doing so. Describing business objectives in terms such as “we are trying to grow our revenues and profits from these clients” rather than as “please engage these clients two times per quarter, at least once in person, add each to the mailing list, and propose at least two projects” will be seen very differently by those receiving the message. You can imagine which would spur creativity that would be more effective.

HRPS: How can business leaders better utilize experts and consultants? What are the dangers in relying on them?
VM: Today’s overwhelming uncertainty makes it more important than ever that we learn how to get insight without losing our autonomy. To reclaim control, we need to keep experts and data on tap, not on top. Doing this is not natural or easy, but to do so, we need to manage our focus, zoom out to see the big picture, triangulate multiple perspectives, and think independently.
HRPS: If predictions are often wrong, how can organizations gather better intel on the future?
VM: Just as it’s impossible to evaluate the quality of a decision process by its outcome, so too is it unproductive to evaluate the quality of a prediction by its accuracy. Good processes sometimes result in bad outcomes, something known colloquially as a bad break. Likewise, bad processes sometimes result in good outcomes, also known as dumb luck. But over time, good processes should result in a higher probability of good outcomes and bad processes should result in a higher probability of bad outcomes. If we apply this logic to predictions about the future, we quickly learn to appreciate the value they may provide in helping us to think differently. They can help nudge us away from our default position and widen our view of the possibilities ahead.
HRPS: How can leaders think better?
VM: Leaders need to restore common sense in their thinking. This means keeping experts on tap, not on top. It means mindfully managing where one focuses and paying attention to both the context and specifics of the situation. And it means not being constrained by conventional wisdom or the safe path from a career risk perspective. Thinking better in today’s environment is about thinking for yourself. 

The Authors: 

Vikram Mansharamani, Ph.D., is a lecturer at Harvard University and author of THINK FOR YOURSELF: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence (HBR Press, 2020).