by Kevin Hoffberg
I remember opening papers in college with a definition, a practice my professors universally regarded as lazy. But in this case, it is a useful place to start a discussion on judgment. Here’s what the American Heritage Dictionary has to say . . .
The act or process of judging; the formation of an opinion after consideration or deliberation.
a. The mental ability to perceive and distinguish relationships; discernment:
b. The capacity to form an opinion by distinguishing and evaluating:
c. The capacity to assess situations or circumstances and draw sound conclusions;
So when we talk about “judgment” as a quality we look for in a leader or manager, I think it’s all of what American Heritage says—distinguishing relationships, assessing situations, and drawing conclusions—and something more. It’s courage too: courage to seek and courage to act; the ability to see into the essence of a thing and then to act accordingly.
For example, I’ve heard judgment referred to in business as “being able to see past the numbers,” the idea being that while the numbers appear to add up one way, a more seasoned eye sees something else: perhaps a false positive, or a faulty correlation, or a missed connection, or a missed implication. Or better still, the ability to not get stuck into the numbers being presented and contemplate the numbers that aren’t on the page.
Another example could arise from almost any dealings between a very junior and a very senior person. Where the junior person may see one thing, the more senior, more seasoned person sees much more. His or her context and experience base is much richer, so relationships, direction, and causality that is not apparent to the untrained eye, are perfectly obvious to someone who has seen it all many times.
I found this example from the world of aviation . . .
You are an experienced pilot and you are about to tackle a tough winter flight in your Bugsmasher II which (except for pitot heat, carburetor heat, and a 5-inch by 7-inch “storm window”) has no icing protection. Being inexact as usual, the area forecast calls for occasional light to moderate rime and mixed icing in clouds and precipitation along your flight path, throughout the duration of your intended flight.
Understanding that you need to look beyond the literal language of a forecast to determine what is really going on, you have learned that the reason for the icing forecast is that a cold front is approaching from the direction of your destination. You also have ascertained that the cold front is moving more slowly than expected and that you can probably beat the front. You will be flying toward deteriorating weather, which will allow you at any time to reverse your course and land in more favorable conditions behind you. You decide that the forecast icing is a manageable risk and that you can take “adequate precautions” against that risk. You conclude that it is safe to take off . . .
Not being a pilot, none of the particulars are any more meaningful to me than to you, but you catch the drift of it. Icing is bad. It turns out in this case there may even be a legal issue: Taking off in these condition might be in violation of flight rules. But apparently it’s open to interpretation, which of course is another way of thinking about judgment
Each of these scenarios get at what I think of as judgment in the real world . . .
1. The ability to find the essence of a thing: the important context, the critical connections, the true relationships between this and that, and what is cause and what is effect. That insight could come from experience, from inspiration, from instinct, from practice, from the Gods, from superior math skills . . .
2. The courage and certainty to choose, to act, to speak up, or to offer an informed opinion.
In other words, insight plus action equals judgment. You need both.
The obvious problem here is that nothing beats life experience for developing judgment, particularly experiences that delivered unexpected outcomes. Note the absence of the word “bad” in this context. Good and bad are evaluative terms, but they’re not necessarily useful ideas when it comes to learning from experience. Why is that? Getting balled up in reactions and feelings about outcomes is a surefire way to block learning from happening.
So if judgment is to be prized, and waiting for it to accumulate in the full season of experience is an unacceptable strategy, then we should hope that judgment is something that can be taught and developed. And if it can’t be taught directly, we should hope that we can teach heuristics, tools, frameworks, or something that create the space and opportunity for purposefully “distinguishing relationships, assessing situations, and drawing conclusions,” the hallmarks of judgment in action. And along the way, through good practices, we would then hope that the new practitioner would learn judgment. How might we do that?
In a non-business setting, we might go after cultivating intuition and insight directly through meditation and other inward looking modalities. In a business setting, three strategies come to mind.
1) Use a process or method to structure the first part—seeking insight into the essence of the decision—so that you can with confidence do the second part: take action. An ideal process would be one that covered off what was “necessary and sufficient” to feel confident that you’d gotten to the essence of the situation; that you really understood the direction and causality of the thing; that the important relationships were clearly understood. You’d also want to satisfy yourself that you hadn’t gotten stuck in your thinking about alternatives. Finally, you’d want to be sure that in making a choice, you were focused on what was really important, and not what was merely evident or perhaps just urgent.
2) Explicitly access your, or other people’s, “non-linear” intelligence. You could describe this as engaging the right brain as well as the left (see following). That’s what happens when someone looks at something with “fresh eyes” and immediately knows that it’s right or wrong. Malcolm Gladwell tells an excellent story about this in his second best seller, Blink. It’s the story of the Getty Museum and the Kouros; a great read if you haven’t (see following). Examples could include doing a visual storyboard, using any one of many brainstorming exercises, mind mapping, and so on.
3) Learn from others. In doing that, you would want to explicitly seek out people with divergent points of view, different experiences, and different levels of knowledge about the problem you’re trying to crack. Engage them not to prove yourself right, but to tap into their insights. Think of it as borrowing their judgment (it becomes your judgment when you act).
Where and how might judgment show up in a business setting? Here are some examples:
Figuring out the problem to be solved. Problems present themselves in all kinds of wrappers; some are shy, some are bold, and many show up in disguises. The thing we think is the issue might only be an indicator, an effect masking a cause. Knowing to dig, where to dig, and how far to dig is a matter of judgment. Some people, through experience, insight, or intuition, just know: they can look at what’s going on and see the real problem to be solved. Others need to be reminded to get out the shovel and dig. Either way, this is where we most need judgment as getting to the essence of the problem sets up the possibility of getting the rest right. The converse is also true.
Figuring out the right way to solve a problem. For example, if I were going to London and needed to pick a hotel in which to stay, how might I do that? I could ask someone who’d been there; I could ask my client to pick something for me; I could consult www.tripadvisor.com; I could call a travel agent; I could throw a dart at a map. And that’s just a few ways to make this decision. So which is the “best way?” Strictly speaking, there is no right answer to that question. So picking the way to solve the problem would be a matter of judgment. Depending on the scope and scale of the problem, this might be the most important part of the entire decision, a problem within the problem that warrants a big expenditure of time.
Exploring alternatives. This is a good example of points two and three: accessing non-linear intelligence and consulting with others. Some of us have the ability and/or training to widen our field of view and see alternatives where other people see nothing. More often, we get stuck into a single alternative, or perhaps a small number of familiar choices. In doing that, in failing to open our field of vision on the thing, we cut off access to judgment. In other words, the familiar is usually the enemy of insight. Going back to my London example, I could keep going back to the same hotel year after year, but is it really the same hotel year after year? Am I really the same traveler?
Understanding the uncertainties. It’s tempting to think this is where all the action is: If there were no uncertainties, there would be no need for this thing called judgment. Going back to the pilot and the potential for icing, if the sky were blue and the temperatures agreeable, what would there be to judge? So it’s two things. The first is having the wisdom to understand that there are uncertainties that matter. The second is figuring out what they might be and acting accordingly. With this in mind, there are a series of questions worth asking yourself.
1. Do you have the knowledge, context, and experience to make this decision, or should you get help?
2. Are you satisfied that you have “used good judgment,” meaning that you have a good story about what you’ve chosen to do, why, and how?
3. Have you identified the critical uncertainty or potential failure factor?
4. Who and what are you placing at risk if your judgment is faulty?
If all of this sounds like a lot of decision overhead, it is. But remember we’re talking about developing something that’s otherwise not available to us without either years of life experience, or access to insight, inspiration, or whatever word you want to use for non-linear intelligence. I happen to be a big believer in the value of that sort of knowledge. I also know that as a practical matter, it’s a hard place to start in a business environment. So that leaves us with the third alternative, which is the purposeful use of process, non-verbal thinking exercises, and consulting with others to hone both the quality of the decision and our own judgment tools.
So what would a piece of training look like: one that would increase a person’s awareness of the need and opportunity to exercise judgment, as well as some tools for usefully accessing and applying judgment. Consider the following:
When is Judgment Necessary? You could make the case that the answer to that question is, “always and everywhere” and you’d be right. As a practical matter, nobody can maintain that level of awareness and mental presence, so a more useful activity would be to spend time identifying specific instances where taking time to work a problem vs. simply making a snap decision would be appropriate. Some rules of the road could be:
1. Situations where the cost of being wrong are unacceptably high.
2. Situations where we have little or no practical experience.
3. Situations where we’ve had unexpected experiences in the past.
In using the word situation, I’m not implying something about “situational ethics,” or actually anything about ethics at all. The idea is to identify situations before they come up where it would be useful to exercise judgment, so you’ll be able to respond more productively when they happen.
Noticing and Describing the Essence of the Thing (The problem in context). I said before I don’t like the word “bad”, but let me use it here. When we think about a situation where someone used “bad judgment”, it is almost always the case that we are able to see something in retrospect that the person in question didn’t see at the time. Conversely, the value of a barn full of life experiences is that we are able to see both more and less than someone else in the same circumstances. It’s in that tension of both more and less that the wise person can see the essence of the problem.
Absent native or accumulated wisdom, a useful exercise is to create a visual map of the problem to be solved. A simple way to do that is to do a mind-map. A more exotic solution is to engage in creating a storyboard or structured visual map. This is a specific example of accessing both left and right brains, both linear and non-linear wisdom, in this case, to create a more fully formed picture of the problem in context, or what I keep referring to as “the thing.”
If you’re willing, here’s another exercise (in two parts). Stop doing whatever it is you’re doing. Read the following instructions and then follow them:
- Close your eyes (after you finish reading).
- Notice your breathing. Don’t change it, just notice yourself inhaling and then exhaling. Now slow both down.
- Notice your head, your jaw, and your forehead. Notice if you’re holding any tension. Notice first, and then release it.
- Notice your shoulders. Are they tense? Are you holding them high? Notice first, and then relax.
- Notice your arms down to your hands. Are they tense? Notice first, and then relax.
- Notice your back. How are you sitting? Is your head forward or back? Notice and then let your posture shift. It will change by itself.
- Notice your legs. Feel your feet. Bring all your attention down your legs to your feet. Notice first, and then relax.
- Stay with that for a moment. Let your attention go anywhere in your body it wants to, but not outside.
- Come back to following your breath. Follow your inhalation and exhalation for five cycles.
What was the point of that? If we were in a classroom setting, the answer to that question would be worth a discussion. If nothing comes to mind right now, let me suggest two ideas.
1. You’ve just practiced the fine art of noticing. You’ve consciously chosen to pay attention to something. This is not a small thing. We are awash in stimuli all day long, almost all of which we screen out so we can get through the day. It doesn’t take much of that to become desensitized to the point that we have to work to pay attention. To the extent that judgment begins with understanding the essence of the thing, we do well to train ourselves to pay conscious attention: To noticing.
2. In this case, you were paying attention to yourself. There are many reasons why that’s a good thing. I keep dancing past the idea of accessing non-linear wisdom, or non-rational forms of intelligence. To speak directly to that point for a moment, we can’t hope to tap into that kind of wisdom when our attention is pulled and pushed by the chatter and noise. Consciously drawing attention inward, even for a few moments, creates a stillness, a space for insights and notions to emerge from wherever they live.
Verbalizing the problem. Powerful thinking can arise from either the left of right brain. Because we’re speaking about using judgment in a commercial setting, we ultimately need to move the problem into the realm of the verbal. As a practical matter, that means we need to use words with care and precision. We can’t think clearly if we can’t describe something clearly. This is doubly true if we intend to engage others in the process. In the example of the pilot and the ice, the problem statement could be any of the following . . .
• Should I take off?
• Should I take off now?
• Should I fly the route I intended or pick a different route?
• What should I do for fun today?
• What’s the best way to get to Spokane?
They’re very different problems. A person stuck on one problem definition misses the opportunity to consider a whole range of other ideas in failing to widen, or maybe narrow, his or her view of the problem.
Wrestle with Uncertainty. In this context, I think “wrestle” is a wonderfully descriptive verb. More specifically, it’s probably “wrestle with the problem until you find the thing you really need to worry about.” Go back to the example of the hotel room in London. What’s the big concern here? Assuming I’m not worried about mold or contracting Legionnaires Disease, it comes down to a single number: How many hours will I sleep every night? I’m not in my hotel room for any reason other than sleeping, so that’s where all the action is. Once I have a line of site on the BIG QUESTION, I can then go about the business of finding alternatives without having to juggle a zillion possible variables. Or to put it another way, we learn judgment through focus: Focus on what matters and filter out the rest.
Develop Useful Alternatives. Often problems are presented in a way that suggests there are only two alternatives. Think about the pilot example: Take off or don’t. In other cases, the problem is bogged down with too many alternatives. Think about the problem of finding a hotel room in London.
Having identified the BIG QUESTION, it’s useful to think about culling your choices down to three: A conservative alternative, an aggressive alternative, and one that hedges both. From there, it may be useful to expand your field of choices (but it may not be). In thinking about these alternatives, you would want to identify them in relationship to not just the BIG QUESTION, but any other nagging uncertainties you can see, for example: potential impact on other people, financial consequences, and so on.
The last three elements, verbalizing the problem, wrestling with uncertainty, and developing alternatives, are all activities that lend themselves to process, the use of non-verbal thinking strategies (like mind mapping), and seeking the counsel of people with different life experiences.
So what do you do now? Judgment usefully shows up on the way to a choice, but in the end, you have to make a choice. You have to take action. You either run up the engine and take off, or you don’t. You make a reservation at this hotel or that.
It may be that you already know enough to decide . . . the BIG QUESTION is the thing that most concerns you so you pick accordingly. It may also be the case that the choices aren’t as clear as you’d like. In that case, you may need to contemplate applying some additional values or priorities. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll leave that discussion for another day. The cleanest, simplest way to build your judgment muscles is to focus on solving for the BIG QUESTION. The hotel might not be as convenient as you’d like, but you know the beds are comfortable and the rooms quiet, and that’s what’s important.
Returning to the story of the Kouros (see following), the problem could be easily thought of as one of judgment. Everyone initially involved looked at some singular aspect of the statue: the documentation, the marble, the tool marks, and so on. Given a limited perspective, it was the considered judgment of each specialist, that what they looked at was consistent with what was being represented: That the statue was an authentic kouros. The problem, at least as the story is told, is that it was not until the very end that anyone laid fresh eyes on the thing and judged it as a whole. In seeing too much and in too much detail, they saw too little.
In retrospect, one strategy would have been to bring in these same experts earlier in the process. I spoke of this as a strategy early on: relying on the judgment of someone with greater life experience. Given the copious credentials of the people driving the acquisition of the statue, you can appreciate how they missed that one.
Another strategy would have been to follow some of what I’ve laid out here, which would have involved structuring a process that included specific steps to disprove the hypothesis. As it was, all the energy and efforts were directed at ascertaining authenticity. The difference between that and actively attempting to disprove authenticity is not subtle or unimportant.
So there you have it. Absent the accumulation of life experience (and even then) or the willingness and ability to access a deeper source of wisdom, the path to better judgment runs through three towns . . .
1. Use process, tools, rules of thumb—something—to create time, space, and structure for thinking through a problem in a high quality way.
2. Explicitly engage in activities that access your whole brain. Think differently.
3. Engage others with more, different, and divergent experience.
The Story of the Kouros
Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author and social commentator, likes to tell the story of the kouros owned by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The tale goes roughly like this:
A kouros is a statue from archaic Greece meant to represent the ideal of male beauty, something much prized in those times. There are very few of these statues in the world today, so the Getty Museum was thrilled to be offered the opportunity to purchase a rare new find. Over a period of many, many months, the prospective owner subjected the statue to all manner of examination. A team of high-priced attorneys pored over the documentation and provenance of the find. Nuclear scientists examined the subatomic structure of the marble. Presumably experts in left sides looked at the statue’s left side, and experts in right sides looked at the right. Everyone came to the conclusion that from their individual points of view based on the subject each knew best, the statue was authentic.
Not long after making the financial commitment to purchase the statue, the Getty people showed it to Federico Zeri, a board of trustees member. His first instinct, within seconds of looking at the statue, was that it was not authentic. Next came noted art expert Evelyn Harrison. Then Thomas Hoving, former director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Same immediate reactions. Getty has this to say today about its purchase: “Neither art historians nor scientists have been able to completely resolve the issue of the Getty Museum kouros’s authenticity. Certain elements of the statue have led to this questioning, especially a mixture of earlier and later stylistic traits and the use of marble from the island of Thasos at a date when its use is unexpected. Yet the anomalies of the Getty kouros may be due more to our limited knowledge of Greek sculpture in this period rather than to mistakes on the part of a forger.”
Left Brain / Right Brain
Left Brain Functions
* Uses logic
* Detail oriented
* Facts rule
* Words and language
* Present and past
* Math and science
* Can comprehend
* Order/pattern perception
* Knows object name
* Reality based
* Forms strategies
Right Brain Functions
* Uses feeling
* “Big picture” oriented
* Imagination rules
* Symbols and images
* Present and future
* Philosophy & religion
* Can “get it” (i.e. meaning)
* Spatial perception
* Knows object function
* Fantasy based
* Presents possibilities
* Risk taking
Tags: Judgment, decision making, Malcolm Gladwell, Kevin Hoffberg, Left Brain, Right Brain