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What Were You Thinking? Act to Avoid Bad Decisions and Assure Success

During the news, do you find yourself musing, "What were they thinking?" Of course, the standard reply is, "They weren't!" If I'm the one guilty of a stupid decision, I grab the old defense, "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

When we make a wrong decision, there can be serious consequences. Think about the aftermath of your own bad decisions. What was going on? What were you thinking? Were you thinking critically?

In another lifetime, as a software developer, the organization was going to issue checks to 40,000 vendors for the first time using our new automated system. I came in on Saturday to let it rip. I hit the button...the system started whirring, the printers were loaded with blank checks, we were going live...

Then the system crashed...the dreaded error code SOC7 rolled across the screen..."Oh Charlie 7" is geek speak for a non-numeric character sitting in a numeric field. Sure enough, I had let bad data creep into the vendor payment field.

Yes, I had made a stupid beginner's error but the real error was my own stinkin' thinkin.' I thought, "No one will put anything but numbers in that field." I was trained as a scientist and steeped in logical thinking. However, my logic failed me when I assumed everyone touching the program would think logically. Humans, as Mr. Spock might tell us, are often highly illogical.

When we did the post mortem, I realized 3 things:

* My mission was off target * My plan failed to consider important risks * I ignored my most important software tool -- my brain.

3 Critical Thinking Actions to Assure Success

We can draw critical thinking lessons from this story to improve our daily decision making and problem solving.

1. Mission ain't wishin': The mission is not just pretty words on a plaque. The mission is a daily guide to action, decision making, and problem solving. I mistakenly thought my mission was "automate the vendor payments." Had I thought more critically up front, we might have had this mission, "Ensure timely, correct vendor payments."

Focus on correct payments would have spurred me to think about how to ensure the system would produce that result. Timeliness would have spurred me to test the system long before going live.

Critical thinking begins with a concrete mission we can act upon. We must ask THE strategic question: Will this move me closer to or further from the mission?

2. The Plan is the Boss: All our work must be guided by the plan. Otherwise, it's easy to be pulled in different directions. It is very difficult to make a great decision or solve a problem permanently in a vacuum. We must understand the context and constraints for making the decision or solving the problem. Where does this situation fall within the organization’s plan?

My plan was incomplete because the mission was incomplete. Thorough risk analysis of the likelihood and impact of common problems, including non-numeric data in numeric-only fields, would have ensured our plan contained actions to address these risks.

3. Best Tool = Brain: There are many "tools" we can use to solve problems, make decisions, and enhance critical thinking. However, there is an old saying: A fool with a tool is still a fool!

Even the most powerful tools cannot be used alone. We must always do a reality check to enhance our decision process. I got wrapped up in the cool new technology and didn't ask critical questions.

The most powerful tool we have is our brain. The best tools facilitate tapping into our brains' many analytical capacities. Each time we solve a problem or make a decision we store more information to help us with the next problem or decision. When we do the post mortem, we lock new information into our neural pathways.

Thinking critically is our most vital asset as we make decisions and solve problems every day:

* Create a strong mission * Execute a robust plan to fulfill the mission, and * Cultivate and flex full brain power.

Want to know more about making better decisions and solving problems successfully? Check out our Success Store Conventional Wisdom: How Todays Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers contains case studies of 21 exceptional leaders. Chapters 3 and 5 discuss the importance of mission and confronting mistakes with insights to maximize the power of the mission and minimize mistakes by learning from them.

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