Making Decisions.

Making Decisions.

In the early days of the pandemic, it seemed smart to press pause on major decisions; it’s not ideal to make big changes in the midst of a crisis. But now, several months in, many people are facing difficult decisions — involving relationships, careers, children, health and more — that can no longer be ignored.

“The advice of not making decisions when you’re under stress is great for someone who is in a short-term traumatic experience where there’s an end to it,” says Kimberly Diggles, a licensed marriage and family therapist. But with no end to the pandemic in sight, particularly here in the United States where the number of coronavirus cases remains high, Diggles says it may not be possible or healthy to leave big decisions on the back burner. Instead, she and the other experts with whom we spoke recommend a proactive, mindful approach. Here are their tips for decision-making during the pandemic and other stressful circumstances.

Assess the moment

Stress can negatively affect our cognitive performance, so try not to rush into a decision during a tense or fearful moment.

“When we perceive a threat in the environment, the amygdala” — often referred to as the fear center of the brain — “becomes overactivated,” says Sunita Sah, an organizational psychologist, expert on decision-making and professor of management studies at the University of Cambridge. “At the same time, the emotional regulation center of the brain is underactivated and the prefrontal cortex — which is required for thinking — is also underactivated, which makes it very difficult to think clearly.”

Taking a beat to bring down your heart rate can help. You need to feel less afraid to make a good decision, Sah says. “If you’re feeling really stressed or traumatized, try not to make an instant decision. The first step is to get some distance.”

For people who work in high-pressure environments — such as Elizabeth Clayborne, an emergency medicine physician at the University of Maryland Prince George’s Hospital Center — swift decisions are often necessary. But equally important, Clayborne says, is the self-awareness to recognize when you need to regroup. “I work in an environment where mistakes cost lives. So I have to be diligent to know that I’m always performing to the best of my abilities,” she says. “In the ER where there isn’t really a time to break, I have to be creative to create the space I need to think.” That may mean something as simple as walking to the cafeteria or getting something to drink, she says. Taking a moment, even briefly, to stop or step away is a small action that can make a massive difference, allowing you to reset and then “re-engage in a more focused manner,” Clayborne adds. Pausing can also prevent you from falling into another effect of stress: binary thinking (limiting yourself to just two options).

Fuel up

You wouldn’t take a road trip without gas in the tank, so try to avoid embarking on a big decision when you’re running on empty. This advice might seem obvious, but Diggles and Clayborne say that it’s common for people — particularly in places with a strong hustle or busy culture — to unintentionally skimp on the basics. Missing out on meals and sleep “shouldn’t be a badge of honor,” Diggles says. “Give your body a chance and give your brain the energy it needs.”

In addition to fueling your physical body, take a proactive approach to your mental health. Diggles suggests finding a grounding activity (her current favorite: yin yoga) that will relax your mind in a way that allows you to “practice being mindful and intentional with your thoughts” so that when you start to feel anxious or you’re faced with a decision, you have the ability to talk yourself through it.

[ Don’t feel like ‘getting things done’? It’s okay not to be productive during a pandemic.]

Schedule a meeting — with yourself

High-impact decisions deserve your undivided attention, says Cassandra Shuck, an entrepreneur who has launched several successful businesses. “A lot of times when we’re making a decision, we’re often multitasking and don’t give it the full stage.” She suggests blocking out time in your schedule for a “one-on-one meeting with yourself.”

Don’t show up to your meeting empty-handed; prepare a list of questions to help you think through options and visualize a variety of outcomes. Here are some prompts to get you started:

Is this a time-sensitive decision? This can help you prioritize according to urgency and determine if something can be put off. “Buying a new car, for example, may not be time-sensitive. There will always be cars on the lot to buy,” Diggles says. “But something like IVF or trying to decide whether you’re going to home-school your kids or go back to work, those may be time-sensitive.”

What type of energy does it require, and do you have the capacity for that right now? Your capacity may fluctuate day-to-day, Diggles says, so what you need to consider is whether, on average, you would have the bandwidth to carry out the decision once it’s made.

Is it something you were thinking about pre-pandemic? Consider whether the decision was already on your radar. Diggles says asking this question can help you determine whether you’re making a choice to ease uncomfortable feelings related to the pandemic or to move something forward that’s important to you. Avoid making “reactive decisions,” she says.

What might the choice look like down the road? Who does it affect? What happens if you succeed or fail? Shuck suggests fast-forwarding mentally to your future and imagining what it’d be like to look back on your life. Allowing yourself to take this view can provide insight into whether and in what ways this decision is important. And, she says, don’t discount your intuition. While all of the experts warn against making impulsive decisions, they acknowledge that your “gut” reaction can alert you to something significant. “Gut reactions give you information,” says Sah, the organizational psychologist, and when it comes to high-impact, personal decisions, “people have to think about different scenarios and their own comfort with risk-taking.” So, she says, we need both an intuitive, emotional response and a slow, deliberative approach to make good decisions.

What are your biggest fears about making this decision? Diggles recommends doing some “reality testing” on your fears to gauge whether they are genuine possibilities or if your brain is serving up overgeneralizations and binary thinking.

Don’t go it alone

Once you’ve had a chance to think through things on your own, seek support and a sounding board.

A friend, therapist or health-care provider can introduce possibilities you may not have considered. Diggles says this is particularly important but also challenging when making decisions during tough times. “When you’re in the middle of a trauma, the last thing that you want to do is go to something unfamiliar. That can be scary … and it takes bravery to consider options you haven’t before.”

If possible, Sah says, in addition to a support system, invite the insight of people who think differently from you to introduce “cognitive diversity” into the mix. But be discerning, she says: Consider the source and their potential biases. She also recommends physically separating yourself from the advice-giver before you make a decision, if possible, to reduce the effects of “insinuation anxiety” — the concern that rejecting advice will signal distrust to the adviser. Invite input but then make the decision in private if possible. “Even just a few minutes [apart from the advice-giver] really helps you to understand what your own preferences are,” Sah says. “If you need time and space, ask for it.”

If you’re hesitant to seek out advice and lean on others, ask yourself why — and try to push past the tendency to withhold. Oftentimes due to social conditioning or expectations, “women especially do a lot of silent suffering,” Clayborne says. “I don’t think we should feel guilty about asking for support.” She knows firsthand the value of a support system in navigating difficult decisions and uncharted territory: Clayborne was seven months pregnant when the coronavirus arrived in the United States and she continued working in the emergency department of one of the hardest-hit hospitals in Maryland. Two other colleagues were pregnant at the same time and, in facing so many unknowns, the three leaned on each other (and have all since delivered healthy baby girls).

Do your best with what you’ve got

Once you’ve laid out your options, you may find none of them are ideal. “Sometimes it might seem like there’s no good solution and anything you choose is going to leave you at a loss of something,” Diggles says. But if a decision must be made, take a moment to acknowledge sadness about the circumstances that have forced you to make this choice, and mourn the loss.

The good news, Sah says, is that once you’ve decided something, you may experience relief. Whereas, if you’re still hung up on making the decision after you’ve done your research, collected insight and weighed your options, that can lead to the added anxiety of being stuck in “analysis paralysis.”

And once you’ve made a decision, says Shuck, the entrepreneur, go all in. “When you make a decision, most of what matters is actually how you carry it out,” she says. If you halfheartedly commit, the outcome will likely reflect that.

Have hope

Although decision-making can feel exceptionally difficult right now, times of trauma and upheaval can also provide clarity and unanticipated opportunities to pay attention to and accelerate things that are important to us. “Sometimes traumatic events can be a catalyst for moving us forward,” Diggles says. For example, “we’re seeing that with Black Lives Matter.” (After the police killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans, several million people in the United States took part in protests; the New York Times reported Black Lives Matter may be the largest movement in this country’s history.)

Significant change is possible on an individual level as well. A number of Shuck’s businesses have sprouted from times of trauma; two weeks after delivering a stillborn baby, she launched a doula and bereavement business, and two months after giving birth to her daughter and struggling with breastfeeding, she created a lactation cookie company. In both instances, she says her healing process led to helping others on their journey.

“Remember that one of our best human strengths is our ability to bounce back,” Clayborne, the emergency medicine physician, says. “I see it at work — human beings impress me every day, people survive and manage things that I can’t even imagine sometimes. I know people are scared for a number of reasons, but I’ve always felt that I see the true human spirit shine through most brightly when we’re challenged and there are uncertainties like what we’re experiencing right now. We are a resilient species, and I expect great things in the future.”

Next Normal.

Next Normal.

One possible next normal is that decisions made during and after the crisis lead to less prosperity, slower growth, widening inequality, bloated government bureaucracies, and rigid borders. Or it could be that the decisions made during this crisis lead to a burst of innovation and productivity, more resilient industries, smarter government at all levels, and the emergence of a reconnected world. Neither is inevitable; indeed, the outcome is probably more likely to be a mix. The point is that where the world lands is a matter of choice—of countless decisions to be made by individuals, companies, governments, and institutions

Let the sunshine in.

Let the sunshine in.

An estimated 3.8 billion email accounts worldwide fire off more than a quarter of a trillion messages each day, some of them not even spam. Out of this staggering sum, some will be sent outside of typical working hours and the controlled environment of the workplace.

Such was the case for Sam Hagerman, founder and owner of a boutique building company in Portland, Oregon. He had just returned from a festive holiday party at his alma mater, shed his tuxedo, brushed his teeth, and crawled into bed. Work still weighed on him, though, so he snatched his laptop to check email. The only light in the room shone from the laptop’s backlit screen, which he had darkened so as not to disturb his wife. There he found a message from a client he had spent countless hours wooing. This, he hoped, would be the news he had been waiting for.

Hagerman did not like what he read. The client complained that his firm was making the process too difficult for her. Too difficult for her? Hagerman thought, remembering the two years he had put into the deal. Perhaps deft diplomacy would salvage things, but Hagerman lost his patience and replied to his team: “I think this fish is rotten at the head. Let’s cut bait.” Then he shut his laptop and went to sleep—not realizing he had hit “reply all.”

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The deal, of course, was over by the time the client saw the email the next morning.

Possibly, the late hour affected his judgment. But Hagerman had sent the email in the dark, and studies show that we humans act differently in low light than we do in the light of day. When the lights are dim, humans tend to feel less connected to others. In the shadows we care less about what others think of us. One theory is that ambient darkness lowers a person’s visual acuity and makes him feel hidden from others. So we let down our guard and are more apt to make more hedonistic (read: authentic) choices.

For Hagerman, this may have meant letting off steam instead of managing the client.

Light in the Workplace

To thrive in today’s globally competitive environment, companies at the top of their game expend great effort toward giving their workers any edge. In addition to generous compensation packages, they provide perks and benefits that range from health club memberships to on-site laundry facilities to stress-busting programs. But there’s also a critical link hiding in plain sight that helps people function at their very best.
We are talking about light.

Vision comprises 80 to 85 percent of our perception of the world around us. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that lighting can act on people in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It can affect how we feel, what we do, and how well (or poorly) we do it. The right light can wake us up in the morning—as much as a strong cup of coffee—or help us wind down for a blissful night’s sleep. It can coax greater productivity, concentration, and creativity out of workers.

Lighting can be designed to change throughout the day, mimicking the movement of the sun and helping us keep our bodies and minds in sync. Or it can be used to help shift the mood in the evening, making it ideal for a networking event. Coupled with decent ventilation, studies show that good lighting can improve employee job satisfaction by almost 25 percent, increase productivity by 16 percent, and lower absenteeism. And it can minimize mistakes, too: an associate professor at Harvard University reportedly reduced errors at NASA Mission Control by switching to rich blue lighting, which could also be applied to healthcare settings to reduce medical errors.

Equally true, however, the wrong lighting can be harmful. A study at Cornell University found that people working in offices with poor lighting saw a 15 percent drop in their creativity while having a 6.5 percent higher likelihood of falling sick. Artificial light such as the kind emitted by fluorescent and halogen bulbs has been connected to disruptions in our internal body clocks, which causes the light-triggered release of hormones that regulate bodily function.

To some degree, businesses have long understood the importance of good lighting. They employ lighting designers and other experts who know what sparks our brains and what doesn’t. They choose the kinds of lights they believe will yield the best results—when to turn up the lights or tune their color spectrum to increase concentration and coax greater productivity from workers. Over at WeWork, there’s even a 14-person team dubbed “The Dream Squad” tasked with designing the ideal lighting for co-working spaces.

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But the obvious question is, what about all the legions of people who don’t work in company offices or special co-working spaces? They take their work home with them, or are the harried folks you see typing reports and holding videoconferences on the run, or replying to texts and emails in coffee shops, airports, and aboard airplanes at all hours of the day and night. These digital doers aren’t getting much guidance, yet their performance can obviously have a great impact on an organization’s performance.

For his part, Eric Higgs, founder of Florida-based LumaStream, suggests that these people seek cooler lighting “while they are maximizing productivity and warmer light into the evening.” Of course, this is easier said than done for the business warrior who’s checking into a hotel at 2 a.m., waiting for a flight to Newark, typing an email on a mobile phone in the back of a taxi—or accidentally hitting “reply all” to a client’s email in bed after a long day.

What Businesses Do

Offices typically employ three basic types of lighting applications: general lighting for open spaces, task lighting for desks and focused work, and videoconference lighting. But they all have one thing in common: they utilize blue light, which tends to energize us humans.

That’s because of the way we process light, which potentially can cover the spectrum of colors. It comes down to nature. The sun, which is the ultimate lighting source, provides full spectrum light—light that not only spans the entire visual spectrum, it also has colors we can’t even perceive. When the sun rises it gives off warm colors like orange and red, which suffuse us with calm. At the height of the day, with the sun overhead, the light is cooler, which means it’s sharper and enriched with more white and blue hues. As the sun heads toward the horizon, the colors become warmer again, until nightfall. That’s nature’s way of telling us it’s time to sleep.

“A lot of our body chemistry is based on the day-night cycle, which we refer to as the circadian rhythm,” says Stan Walerczyk, principal of Lighting Wizards and chair of the Human Centric Lighting Society. “If you do not get sufficient exposure to sunlight, your circadian rhythm gets messed up and that, in turn, messes up your hormones—and then you’re all screwed up.”

But there is nothing natural about working inside in an office: “We spend 90 percent of our time indoors,” Higgs says. “Our biological clocks are out of sync from work and life conditions.”

That’s why companies have to give lighting some serious thought, especially if workspaces are in windowless settings. People who work in such conditions report lower scores on quality-of-life measures, while studies show those with windows in their workplaces received 173 percent more white light exposure during work hours. They then slept an average of 46 minutes more per night.

It isn’t just the existence of light that affects workers, it’s also the type and quality of light. “There’s no question different spectrums of light can cause different effects,” Higgs says. Cooler lighting is more typical in a workspace than in the home since it is perceived as more energizing, while warmer light, with its red and orange hues, settles you down.

Until recently, many companies opted for florescent lights in offices because it was cheaper in the short term through energy savings. But such artificial light has been connected to disruptions in our internal body clocks. The good news: as the cost of LED lighting has dropped, there’s been a movement among companies for more “human-centric lighting.”

The experimentation, though, has only begun. For instance, for the 2015 season, the Seattle Mariners hired Walerczyk to design and implement an LED lighting strategy in the home team’s locker room. The goal was to design the lights to intensify the players’ moods, increase energy levels, and improve their on-the-field performance.

“We tuned it so that before a game the players were exposed to blue-enriched light and after the game they received a warmer light, so they could eventually go to sleep easier,” Walerczyk says. (The team’s record improved, although with players regularly switching teams it’s hard to track the lighting’s role.)

What About Those Outside the Office?

Millions of Americans work outside the office. One poll found that 43 percent of employed Americans spend at least some time working remotely. Companies, meanwhile, are finding that allowing their workers to telecommute is simply good business, saving millions of dollars in office space (and expensive lighting designs), raising morale and loyalty, and meeting the demands of younger job seekers—i.e., millennials—who prefer it.

Obviously, organizations can’t come into people’s homes, but experts think guidelines for remote workers might help in a number of ways, such as reminding workers about the pitfalls of communicating with staff, vendors, and customers late in the evening or in places with poor lighting. Raising awareness is half the battle.

For his part, Walerczyk advises investing in a tunable lamp in homes and home offices, which can be adjusted to emit more blue light to energize, and more red or orange light when it’s time to wind down. Being near natural light always helps, so put your office desk near a window, and ditch any fluorescent or halogen lamps you might have. Above all, “email and text should be turned off while people are sleeping or resting,” he says.

Not one to lack ingenuity, Sam Hagerman, the construction firm owner who accidentally hit “reply all” on a message his client wasn’t supposed to see, came up with his own proactive, foolproof steps to prevent anything like that from happening again. He had an assistant set up a passcode on his mobile phone so he couldn’t respond between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

“I made her promise not to tell me the code,” Hagerman says.

Outsmarting your Brain to Become a Better Leader

Outsmarting your Brain to Become a Better Leader

Sep 4, 2017: Weekly Curated Thought-Sharing on Digital Disruption, Applied Neuroscience and Other Interesting Related Matters.

By Tina Nielsen and Lisa Kepinski

Curated by Helena M. Herrero Lamuedra

We know from behavioral and neuro-science that our brains struggle with information overload. Timothy Wilson, a Professor of Psychology, estimates our brains receive over 11 million inputs – any of the data or stimuli we receive through our five senses – per second, when they can only consciously process 40. Moreover, when we multi-task, this falls even lower.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman points out that our brains evolved so that most of our decision-making is an automatic, unreflected process reliant upon shortcuts and biases. This is useful if you’re in the wilderness, instinctively running away as a rustling leaf or moving shadow hint at a predator, but less so in the modern workplace.

Research show that people get even more biased when they work together in teams, while social pressures, self-silencing, and group conformity significantly all impact the quality of information shared in discussions.

Leaders need to overcome these obstacles to get the best out of themselves and their teams. In our work, we apply behavioural sciences and design techniques to outsmart our brains’ automatic patterns of thoughts.

Here are some simple tips to help your organization make better decisions.

1. Interrupt the interruption

Women get interrupted 2.8 times more often than men, by both women and men, and when they do contribute to a team discussion, men may take credit for their ideas – a phenomenon that usually goes unnoticed by their male colleagues. Furthermore, when women voice their views, they are punished with a 14% drop in how competent they are perceived to be. The impact is that women often hold back from speaking up.

As a leader, redesign the way you facilitate meetings. You need all inputs from every person on the team. Create an interruption-free space in a team discussion. Set an amount of time that is only for the person speaking (two minutes, for example) to get their point across. And, throughout the discussion, when an interruption occurs, anyone on the team may call it out (try using a bell, a buzzer, or knocking on the table…some sort of auditory cue to signal the unwanted behaviour). The interrupter doesn’t get to continue, the original speaker continues. Do not create a ‘blame’ culture for the interrupting. Instead use the sound as an interrupter to the automatic and un-reflected behavior of interrupting.

2. Share perspectives silently

The psychologist Solomon Asch found in his experiments that approximately 74% of people in a group conform to the view of the majority of its members when addressing them. This is due to our deep social need to feel accepted by the group. Neuroscientist Gregory S. Bern discovered that when people in a group conform, the region of the brain where perception is located shows increased activity. His research suggests that how we perceive an issue changes to reflect that of the group. Also, he found that when people in a group offer an opinion that goes against that of the group, they feel anxiety.

To avoid this and get the best input from your team, try this. Ask group members to write down their perspectives – including their most critical views – instead of saying them out loud to the group. This makes group conformity vanish and gives equal access to diverse perspectives. This is especially important as minority, low status group members are likely to hold back more than their peers.

3. Conquer ‘Group Think’

The launch of the Challenger in the U.S. in 1986 was a failure. It exploded 73 seconds after launch, in a tragedy which killed seven people. The investigation committee concluded the reason for the disaster was a lack of dissent, a failure to take data into account that didn’t fit expectations, and Group Think in the decision-making process. No leader wants to see a catastrophe unfold in their own organization, yet in experiments at Harvard, Professor Iris Bohnet finds that her students repeatedly fall into the “trap” of relying on a biased sample of data in the decision-making, similar to what led to the Challenger disaster. Only very few of her students seek more information, as she notes in her book, What Works. Yet even when we’re aware of the pitfalls of Group Think, and are instructed to seek out new data, we can’t be assured of the quality of our decision-making.

To avoid the perils of conformity, try dividing groups into many small and different kinds of groups that work independently of each other. Be sure to compare the outcomes of the different groups.

4. Flip perspectives

Another tactic that mitigates Group Think is to frame the same data to the different groups in different ways, for example, presenting a project as a “90% chance” to succeed to one group and a “10% risk” of failure to another group will make a difference in their perceptions, thus behaviours. Also, if you have a stack of background information for the groups, make sure to order it differently for each group to change their “anchor”. We are used to perceiving information relative to something else (the “anchor”, often the first thing people read) – flipping the anchor will flip their perspectives. Again, be sure to compare the outcomes of the different groups.

5. Leaders and experts hold back

Leaders should be the last people to contribute ideas in a team discussion, to avoid swaying the group due to their status and power. Similarly, those who are perceived as “experts” on a topic under discussion should also hold back, as others on the team will begin to conform to their view or censor themselves if they disagree. If you find this hard to do, put a note in front of you with “speak last” written on it, or put a piece of tape on your hand to signify taping your mouth closed. When you do speak, give permission for others to critique your views.

6. Reframe ‘conflict’

Often “conflict” is seen as a negative thing in team discussions, something to be avoided or even punished. While some conflicts can indeed be destructive, others are simply a healthy exchange of different perspectives. Try reframing this type of “conflict” as “constructive discussion” or “positive debate” or “uncovering blind spots” (or whatever term fits your organization) and communicate to the team that this is acceptable – when it’s done respectfully and with the intent of getting all ideas into the discussion to arrive at the best decisions. You can also prime the brain to perceive contrarian views and critical questions as positive by stating that this task requires ‘critical thinking’, whereas if you use the word ‘getting along’ it will have the opposite effect.

7. Assign critics

In the book Wiser, Sunstein & Hastie suggest appointing team “devil’s advocates”, specifically asked to critique team recommendations and decisions. However, you need at least two people playing this role simultaneously; with just one person, self-silencing might kick in. The book also illustrates the benefits of inviting another team to act as a “contrarian” team with the purpose of “combating” your team’s plan, strategy, or idea.

8. Take another perspective

To see alternatives and/or to uncover blind spots, ask yourself, “What would others do?” Ask a simple question to yourself or in the team meeting, “What would xx function do to deal with this challenge?” or “If a new leadership team took over now, what would they do?”. Something as simple as this can help your brain to see issue and challenges from a different perspective and open up your mind to other solutions. This helps to mitigate status quo bias, selective attention bias, and confirmation bias.

9. Create space for contemplation and analysis

The rush to make decisions often leads us to fall back on implicit associations, biases, and stereotypes — certainly not the conditions for good decision-making. Instead of going with your gut feeling, design for a two-part decision making process and add in a reviewer. When you have reached a decision, take a break from it (such as a day) and then come back to the decision with all the reasons why it would not work or be the best decision. Also seek others’ input in the same way. Seeing the decision from the flip side allows us to question if we have really found the best solution.

10. Design meetings for fresher minds

Meeting conditions can impact decision-making. A study of judges found that their decisions were more carefully considered and lenient after having taken a break, whereas prior to breaks they often opted to maintain the status quo and deny parole. Fatigue can interfere with our decisions. This can especially crop up in situations where many decisions are made in sequence, such as in an organization’s annual appraisal session (which can involve very long, multi-day meetings).

Design your team meetings with frequent breaks that are structurally built into the agenda (such as every two hours). Don’t leave this to chance, and set limits on checking emails during the break – that will only further overload the mind, contributing to increasing fatigue. Give suggestions for what to do, such as ‘take a 15 minute walk”, or “Sit in a quiet room with your eyes closed and focus on your breathing for 5 minutes.” Provide drinks and light snacks to ensure hunger doesn’t eat into decision-making. These things might be seen as trivial or too costly, yet what is more important: a flawed decision and its consequences, or a few minutes of downtime and minor catering expense? Reframe those perceived expenses of time and catering as enablers to create a stronger organization and bring out the best in yourself and your people.

11. Release time to work

When we are under time pressure or have too much to do, our rational mind is overloaded, and we fall back on unconscious mode of thinking.

We know from research that one of the major time-stealing activities that most people engage in is email and social media. When we stop working on a task to check emails it takes the brain about 23 minutes to get back into the task at hand. Help your brain not to do this by designing your messaging systems not to inform you about incoming email or instant messages/chats, and only allow you to check at a certain time, such as right after lunch or late afternoon when you are most often tired.

Or take it to the extreme, and set up an autoreply stating that you’ll check emails on Friday, asking people to send a text message if it’s urgent. And check how many people deemed their matter important enough to do so.

How ‘social intelligence’ can guide decisions

How ‘social intelligence’ can guide decisions

Aug 14, 2017: Weekly Curated Thought-Sharing on Digital Disruption, Applied Neuroscience and Other Interesting Related Matters.

By Martin Harrysson, Hugo Sarrazin and Estelle Metayer

Curated by Helena M. Herrero Lamuedra

In many companies, marketers have been first movers in social media, tapping into it for insights on how consumers think and behave. As social technologies mature and organizations become convinced of their power, we believe they will take on a broader role: informing competitive strategy.

In particular, social media should help companies overcome some limits of old-school intelligence gathering, which typically involves collecting information from a range of public and proprietary sources, distilling insights using time-tested analytic methods, and creating reports for internal company “clients” often “siloed” by function or business unit.

Today, many people who have expert knowledge and shape perceptions about markets are freely exchanging data and viewpoints through social platforms. By identifying and engaging these players, employing potent Web-focused analytics to draw strategic meaning from social-media data, and channeling this information to people within the organization who need and want it, companies can develop a “social intelligence” that is forward looking, global in scope, and capable of playing out in real time.

This isn’t to suggest that “social” will entirely displace current methods of intelligence gathering. But it should emerge as a strong complement. As it does, social-intelligence literacy will become a critical asset for C-level executives and board members seeking the best possible basis for their decisions.

From identifying data to mapping people and conversations

Social media creates a new information map. Competitive analysts today differentiate between primary sources of information (from experts, competitors, employees, and suppliers), on the one hand, and secondary sources (such as published data, articles, and market research), on the other. Social intelligence operates on a different plane, identifying people and their conversations in social spaces. Its logic is that if you can find the right “curators” and experts collecting and channeling vital, accurate information, that eliminates the need for extensive searches of traditional databases and published information. Identifying the right people ultimately should induce companies to join existing online conversations and even shape them. This real-time information may help preempt key actions of competitors or lead to adjustments of strategy.

Intelligence analysts often report exclusively to a single department, such as communications, marketing, or strategy. That can make analysts gravitate toward the approved pattern of thinking within their function, potentially limiting the breadth of insight they distill and sometimes even interfering with their judgment. Curating a variety of perspectives from multiple social-media sources should help internal checks and balances play out more freely and, in some cases, lead to necessary whistle-blowing. To reinforce this diversity of thought, companies can embed analysts across the organization in functions ranging from strategic planning and product development to R&D, customer service, and M&A planning.

As companies make such moves, they will probably need to update the profiles of their competitive-intelligence analysts. Recruitment from outside the company or even the industry can improve the odds that analysts will pick up a variety of signals that now may be missed. Leaders, too, will need to understand that decrypting weak signals may offer better strategic insights than the familiar patterns traditional intelligence sometimes serves up.

From data gathering to engaging and tracking

Analysts typically spend 80 percent of their time gathering information before they begin to analyze it. Social intelligence radically alters this process. Numerous tools allow analysts to create dynamic maps that pinpoint where information and expertise reside and to track new data in real time. The most effective way of obtaining new information is to engage a carefully mapped network of experts on specific subjects.

Companies today normally hire people with outstanding research and analytical skills. But socially astute analysts will need more, such as the ability to manage and engage an online community of trend spotters and, above all, the curiosity to reach out for novel sources of expertise. In effect, they must become hunters of information rather than gatherers. Companies will need to invest in the tools, such as network-mapping and influence-rating metrics, that analysts need to manage these new networks—for example, by helping to assess the expertise and relevance of community members. An obvious corollary is that companies should also be trying to reduce the odds of competitors “hunting” them in social spaces by making their people aware of how easy it is to inadvertently divulge valuable information.

From analysis and synthesis to structuring and mining

Few analysts deploy tools robust enough to draw useful insights from the turbulent new streams of social data. Most use older-line approaches taught in business schools—such as standard SWOT. Even analysts who have dipped in the waters of social media often find themselves swimming upstream. Most of today’s techniques simply extract conversation flows found on the “usual suspects”: Facebook and Twitter.

Yet the availability of vast quantities of social-media data points has spawned an array of new analytic methods that can structure and derive insight from complex information. The range of analytical techniques has exploded, and to stay ahead of the game companies must tap new areas of expertise. Some may have to seek talented people from outside the organization who are familiar with the new methods or to invest heavily in upgrading the skills of current intelligence analysts. Central to this quest will be convincing senior leaders that the new methodologies are sound and the insights they provide will improve decision making. With little history and few case studies demonstrating their impact, this is often an uphill battle.

From reporting to curating and embedding

One complaint we often hear from analysts is that senior managers don’t act on the information channeled their way. There are good reasons for this inattention: intelligence reports often are formal documents sent by e-mail, broadcast by corporate newsletters, or posted on intranets. Content sometimes covers the waterfront of competitive topics, and information can be dated by the time it gets into decision makers’ hands.

By contrast, new social software now on the market lets companies rapidly, even automatically, curate highly pertinent information—from news sources, Web discussions by experts and influencers, freshly minted market data, and customer feedback. This software allows companies to produce “micro-publications” that can be dispatched to decision makers instantly. Almost any user within a company can therefore create a personalized information dashboard, which “democratizes” intelligence and embeds relevant data deep within the organization.


The information that companies need to meet competitive challenges is moving quickly from published and proprietary sources to the open, chaotic world of social platforms. Navigating this new environment effectively will require new skills and a willingness to engage in social conversations rather than merely assemble information. This is a mission that should extend across the organization. Senior executives can’t leave such important work to specialists. Social intelligence will sharpen strategic insights, and leaders must be immersed in the new information currents.