Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Blink, has made me ponder the role that intuitive quick decision-making plays in effective leadership.
At the heart of the book is the idea that snap judgments — even apparently instinctual, gut reactions — are accurate. It’s what cognition experts call "thin-slicing," which Gladwell defines as "the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience." So, as Gladwell notes in several telling anecdotes, an art expert can look at an apparently genuine ancient sculpture and know it’s a fake. Or a relationship expert can judge whether a couple has a chance at success by studying their faces for a few minutes.
He cites a number of examples of people who have learned how to isolate and then minimize the smallest slice upon which they can base a decision and expect it to be correct with a sufficiently high degree of certainty. These people are experts in their fields, and are able to make extremely accurate decisions with far less information than we might expect.
Effective leadership, or experienced-based luck? One of Gladwell’s New Yorker colleagues, James Surowiecki, wrote a book last year about collective wisdom, The Wisdom of Crowds. At first glance, the theories presented in Surowiecki’s book appear to run counter to the material in "Blink." His book deals with the often inexpert conclusions of a group; Gladwell’s talks about the instinctive reaction of the individual. The two had an open discussion about their works in Slate.com. Gladwell says they’re really not so different after all. Both draw from experience — even unconscious experience — and both make use of thought processes not given enough credit.
Highly effective leadership is often about knowing the least amount of information required to make a highly accurate decision… quickly. Through "Blink" perhaps we now have a better understanding of how it happens.