Sources of Power - How People Make Decisions

by Gary Klein


A colleague of mine after returning from a Myers Briggs feed-back session with the consultant who had done the assessment on him told me the following story. The consultant told him how his Myers-Briggs personality type meant that he made decisions based on rational, logical analysis. My colleague replied that this was not very important information because that was how everybody made decisions. What followed was a 30 minute argument where my colleague tried to convince the consultant that it was impossible to make decisions any other way. The truth is that we largely do not use logical rational analysis in most decisions that we make.

While this book is now nearly ten years old it provides conclusive evidence on how people really make decisions in different situations and commonly in ways completely different than training programs on decision making. Gary Klein has studied lots of decision makers, especially those under time or pressure stress such as military commanders or fire-fighters, but the decision making processes he identifies also apply to other situations. On page 10 he describes how students deciding on which job to take at the end of their university courses would apparently use logical rational analysis over a period of days or weeks but in the vast majority of cases come back to the gut decision they had made very early in the process.

Instead of looking at possible options and comparing their merits and flaws we tend to go through a much less rational process where commonly we will go with the first option that we consciously look at that will work.

Klein describes what he calls the Recognition Primed Decision (RPD) model to describe how people go through this process.

Now we are not talking about decisions analysing a large company takeover or purchasing a new defence system for the military where options are clearly analysed in detail (although looking at some recent decisions in both these arenas emotions and intuition seem to play a large part as well). We are talking about smaller decisions and decisions taken under time pressure.

Interesting areas of the book are:

    • Chapter 10 - The Power to See the Invisible. This is a chapter about expertise and how it aids decision making, in particular to respond to what is not happening when it should be. The chapter also makes recommendations on how training programs should be structured to improve the accumulation of expertise.
    • Chapter 11 - The Power of Stories. This is a chapter about how we can use stories to communicate and help people make decisions. This is a chapter that everyone should read.
    • Chapter 13 - The Power to Read Minds. This is a chapter on how we should communicate intent. How many times have we all issued instructions, either in writing or verbally, and then something completely different has happened? I thought I was pretty bad at this until I read the story on page 223 of how only 34% of company commanders carried out the intentions of their battalion commander in military exercises, even though the battalion commanders had issued written statements of intent. If this is happening in individuals who are highly trained and promoted on their abilities, how hard is it for all of us to truly communicate our intent? By using models on how people make decisions Klein has some useful tips on page 225 and 229 on how to better communicate intent.

As futurists we are constantly working with people and how they make decisions about what might or might not happen in the future. Understanding how people make decisions generally helps us work better on how to make decisions on the future. Understanding the nature of problems and when to use and not use experts for decision making also helps.

I would recommend this book for anyone that works in teams, has to make time pressured decisions, or is simply interested in better understanding how they and the people around them make decisions.