A donkey is standing between a pile of hay and a bucket of water.
He’s very thirsty, but also very hungry. Should I eat the hay first? Or drink the water first? Unable to decide, the donkey eventually dies of hunger and thirst.
I know what you’re thinking: I’m not a donkey. And I would never do that.
Research shows that we act like donkeys more often than we realize. Management scholar Paul Nutt found that half the decisions made by organizations fail. According to Nutt’s research, the failures happen in part because leaders consider more than one alternative in only 20% of their decisions.
For much of the time, business leaders behave worse than the donkey and focus on a single option. As a result, they miss better opportunities hidden in plain sight, and in some dire cases, die of thirst and hunger.
Think back to some of the monumental decisions you’ve made in your life.
Chances are that these were of the “whether or not” variety:
Whether or not to go to business school.
Whether or not to quit your day job and open a yoga studio.
Whether or not to fire one of your employees.
We view each of these choices in isolation. Once we begin to assess the pros and cons, we develop tunnel vision. We become blind to alternative options sitting in the periphery. As author Robertson Davies put it, “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” If the mind anticipates a single answer, that’s all that the eye will see.
Here are 4 ways to expand your mind and reveal options you may have missed. Even adding just one or two additional options can make all the difference.
1. Think about what else you could do with that time and money.
These are called opportunity costs. If you’re thinking about going to business school, you could use those 2 years and $150,000 in tuition to start your own business instead.
2. Assume all existing options aren’t available. Ask yourself, “What else could we do?”
When the existing options are still on the table, we get anchored to them. Any new options we suggest tend to be minor improvements over the existing ones.
But when we take all those options off the table, we force ourselves to begin with first principles and shift our mental focus elsewhere.
If firing your employee weren’t an option, what else could you do? Shift him to a different department that better suits his skillset? Assign him to a different team that better fits his personality? Give him a leave of absence?
3. Activate divergent thinking before convergent thinking.
Divergent thinking is a way of generating different ideas in an open-minded and free-flowing manner. During divergent thinking, we don’t think about constraints, possibilities, or budgets. We just throw around ideas, open to whatever might present itself.
Set aside the spreadsheets, and let your brain run wild. Investigate the absurd. Reach beyond your grasp. Blur the line between fantasy and reality.
It’s tempting to skip divergent thinking and instead resort to convergent thinking—evaluate what’s easy, what’s probable, what’s doable. But this approach puts the cart before the horse. We have to generate ideas first before we can begin evaluating them. If we cut the accumulation process short—if we immediately start thinking about consequences—we run the risk of hampering originality.
4. Have your cake and eat it too.
Your choices may not be mutually exclusive.
You could keep your day job and open a yoga studio.
Or have your hay and drink your water too.
P.S. Interested in making better decisions and giant leaps in your work and life?
I’ve partnered with hiitide to offer a Virtual Book Club and micro-course to help you apply the principles from my book, Think Like a Rocket Scientist, to your daily life.
It’s one thing to read the book. It’s something else to turn it into action. When you join the book club, you’ll get 28 days of prompts and exercises delivered in short, easy-to-complete bites. You’ll also get a live Q&A session with me to ask me all your questions about the book and beyond.
The book club launches TODAY! Registration will remain open until Wednesday, April 7th.
Head over here to learn more and join. Readers of the Weekly Contrarian get 15% off (use discount code ROCKET15 at checkout).