Business is made of decisions. While some have a more dramatic impact on the business all decisions, large and small, are important. That’s why discovering how to make smarter decisions is so crucial to the continued growth, or even existence, of any enterprise. Luckily, the scientific community has recognized the importance of understanding the decision-making process and has made numerous, recent discoveries that shed light on the process.

In the January 2016 issue of the “Journal of Experimental Psychology”, researchers published their findings on research identifying two broad types of decision-making processes. The first is called an analytic or incremental approach. According to authors, “Analytic, or incremental, problems are thought to require a progressive series of steps to reach a solution. Incremental problem solving therefore relies on controlled attention processes to keep track of both the final goal and the incremental subgoals required to transverse the problem space and reach a solution.”

In other words, analytic problems are much more complex and actually require a completely different part of the brain to reach a solution. Such problems often require our undivided attention and thus trigger “higher working memory capacity” (or WMC)—in other words “the ability to hold and manipulate information in a temporary active state.” Higher working memory capacity is often associated with the most complex problems, those which require the most mental energy to work through the steps and reach a solution.

And this is where the problem for the business user arises. Often business decisions will, indeed, be incredibly complex: the result of hundreds if not thousands of different factors all working together (or against each other.) Unfortunately the analytic problem solving method requires much more time and energy than your average busy businessperson has to offer. The result is valuable time spent on analysis and working through business problems whilst revenue is being lost and competitors are getting ahead.

A Change in Thinking

But the problem with making good business decisions goes even deeper than simply “not having the time to put in the due diligence and find the best solution.” Because these decisions can be so complex and their effects so far-reaching we have a tendency to only use the analytic problem solving method, giving a problem all of our attention and giving each step in the incremental problem-solving process equal time and attention.

However, this isn’t always the best way to make decisions, and it’s certainly not the fastest or even the most reliable. As the researchers noted, working through problems analytically “improves performance on a range of cognitive and academic tasks. However, a greater ability to control attention sometimes leads individuals with higher WMC to persist in using complex, attention-demanding approaches that are suboptimal for a given task.”

In other words, the more complex, time-consuming problem-solving solution is not always the best. While we might have been conditioned to trust hours of hard work, there is another way to make good business decisions that is equally reliable and many times faster. We just need to change the way we think about making decisions.

Insight Problem Solving

According to DeCaro et al, “when solving an insight problem, individuals tend to experience an ‘aha’ moment that leads to the solution but does not follow the step-by-step incremental nature of analytic problems.” On the surface, the insight problem solving method should be the clear choice of the business user: the same solution is achieved without having to follow the “step-by-step incremental nature” of analytic problem solving.

But insight problem solving does require work. Specifically, “insight problem solving often involves an initial misrepresentation of the problem, which leads the solver to an impasse, a point at which no progress can be made until they restructure their initial representation of the problem.” This restructuring exercise forces “solvers relax the initial constraints imposed on the problem, and consider more peripheral aspects of the problem. In doing so, solvers often experience an “aha” moment, when the new representation enables the solution to become suddenly apparent.”

And therein lies the key- when presented with a problem, simply restructuring or changing how you look at it forces you to relax constraints and consider peripheral, contextual information and see the situation in a new light. Often this new perspective will allow you to intuitively connect the dots and experience the “aha” moment where the solution to the problem becomes suddenly apparent.

Insight Problem Solving for Business Users

The question now becomes why would a business user want to make more decisions based on insight rather than analysis? It is simply a matter of time. The analytic decision making process depends on focused mental energy to break down a problem into it’s constituent parts. This process can be time-consuming and, as DeMarco noted, does not guarantee the best results.

Insight decision making, on the other hand, still presents a solution to the problem but without the strenuous effort involved in incremental reasoning. The coveted “aha” moment, the sudden flash of clarity, is not only an exhilarating feeling but happens in less time and can yield solutions equal to (or greater than) those achieved by other, lengthier methods.

However, there are drawbacks to an insight-based approach. It depends largely upon restructuring a problem, changing the way it is perceived in order to find new solutions. This restructuring is meant to loosen constraints and see peripheral aspects of the problem in order for the made to naturally make new connections. Thus, while the solution might be quickly realized the insight approach does not, necessarily, take less time due to the practicalities of gathering the information and changing the way it is perceived.

A method is needed that gathers all relevant information in one place and makes it easy to change how that information is perceived, thus making the time-to-realization inherent in insight-based problem solving faster.

And this is where data visualization comes in- but more on that later.

Until next time,

The VisualCrew