Why We Should Make Decisions In Our Organizations Like Brains Not Computers

Proof that brains are more efficient than computers

Cognitive research illuminates how our brains make decisions, and how they are different from computers. Compared to computers our brains are slow, noisy and imprecise. And, paradoxically perhaps, this makes them much more efficient than computers, but only because brains have one big advantage over computers: they have goals.


 The importance of goals to decision-making

Essentially life consists of billions of choice points. Choice is about value: what do we value over what? Having goals makes choice a lot easier: it makes it possible to assign values to options, as some have more value in terms of our goals than others. If I am trying to get to London, and have come across a signpost labeled Dublin one way and London the other, one sign has much more value to me than the other.  So we make choices based on those values. Goals allow us, in times of uncertainty to act efficiently and not waste energy.


Brains are oddly efficient

Brains possess all the characteristics of highly efficient computational machines. Efficient computational devices, like brains, follow four principles

  •  Drain batteries slowly
  •  Save space
  •  Save bandwidth
  •  Have goals

It is the enactment of these principles that make them (relative to fast, quiet, precise yet goalless and energy guzzling, wasteful computers) slow, noisy, imprecise and yet highly efficient.


How do these principles translate into organizations?

 Drain batteries slowly

This means avoid high-energy spikes in decision-making by using slow and soft processes that use minimal energy. The implication for organizational life would be to aim for soft, slow decision-making (a pattern of small groups of people making small decisions frequently) rather than patterns of spiky decision-making (infrequent decisions involving everyone).


Save space

This dictum suggests that our computational device should have as few (message or information carrying) wires as possible, and those should be shorter rather than longer. This suggests understanding organizational communication as network rather than pyramid based. So communication (and decision-making is based on short, local messages rather than lots of long ‘wires’ to get the same message from the top to the bottom of the organization and tight ‘knots’ where decisions get made.


Save bandwidth

The dictums here are: stay off the line, don’t repeat yourself and be as noisy (as in random) as possible! This suggests to me that the centralized bombardment communication process of constant repetition of ‘the message’, broadcast across the organization, offering exact and precise instructions, at regular and predictable intervals, is highly inefficient. Instead information needs to be offered in local contexts in different ways, when appropriate.


Have goals

In efficiency terms this means: having a view of the destination but being imprecise about how to reach it; creating mental models; and making ongoing adjustments. In organizations this could mean creating rich mental models of the goals and using local guidance and expertise to achieve them, making ongoing adjustments. This describes an emergent change approach.


Message for leaders

  • Create goals to act as a valuation system for decision-making
  • Create rich mental pictures of goals
  • Leave goal achievement processes imprecise, work with local knowledge, adjusting plans as options emerge
  •  Devolve decision making to the lowest level
  • Encourage frequent, small-scale local decision-making and innovation
  • Spread the message locally, contextually, and opportunistically; don’t waste energy broadcasting to the nation
  •  Use the emergent approach to manage, lead or ride change

Other Resources

More on using Appreciative Inquiry and other positive psychology techniques at work can be found in Sarah’s book Positive Psychology at Work.

See more Thought Provoking articles in the  Knowledge Warehouse.

Appreciating Change Can Help

Appreciating Change is skilled and experienced at supporting leaders in working in this challenging, exciting and productive way with their organizations. Find out more by looking at how we help with LeadershipCulture change and with employee Engagement.

For further information on these alternative approaches to change, please contact us or phone 07973 782 715