Management thinking - mindless, mindful and out of our minds

How do I know what I think until I see what I say?
— Karl Weick

Every now and again in academic literature you come across a good quote that is insightful and helpful. I found this on my research travels and it comes from an exceptionally good review on Managerial and Organisational Cognition by James Walsh  (Walsh, J. P. (1995). Managerial and organizational cognition - notes from a trip down memory lane.

According to Walsh, research suggests that we can be mindful, mindless and out of our minds when taking action or making decisions.  Space and the amount of time you want to spend reading this blog doesn't allow for a full review on managerial cognition and decision making but in essence the three aspects are:

  • Mindless - making decisions without taking into account new information. Simply put, following what we have always done despite contrary signals. This situation is also linked to 'cognitive or managerial inertia', where managerial perceptions of what is happening lag behind changes in either the internal or external environment. More bluntly it is referred to being asleep at the wheel, a situation that is common.
  • Mindful - using new information as the base for decision making.  This type of decision making is quite rare and is used where previous managerial ideas aren't applicable.  
  • Out of our minds - when pressure forces us to act before we have time to adequately think.  'How do I know what I think until I see what I say?' is a quote to bend your head around. It refers to an "act first-think later (if at all)" view of action taking.

Complicating this is the fact that human beings are very good at accepting without challenge information that agrees with our view of the world and disregarding, or treating as inaccurate, information that contradicts our view of the world.  This is termed information filtering and is a bias that leads to 'blind spots'.

It has been written countless times that the environment is complex and the speed of change makes strategic decision making in organisations problematic. However, this is simply a cop out and decisions are made either mindlessly, mindfully or insanely.

What is of great value is knowing when you are being mindless and just carrying on "hoping" (see: Hope is not a strategy) you'll be okay. People from outside your organisation/industry can be invaluable as they can provide a sanity check and ask the 'dumb' questions. Also independent directors and advisors (like me!) can be very usual in short bursts to ensure your organisational decision making is mindful.

(Cartoon from -