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Undue diligence?

Making big decisions is a daily task for business executives. Dan Goldstein asks if you have given much thought to how those decisions ...

By Daniel G. Goldstein 01 December 2009

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People make decisions on a daily basis; but people in certain fields - such as business, medicine and government - have to make decisions that impact others, often in major ways. Yet, the art and science of decision making is just beginning to receive, properly so, new and greater scrutiny. For example, in a recent article in Medical Education, some elemental questions are posed that illuminate the reason for such scrutiny:


Imagine the following situation: a man is rushed to hospital with serious chest pain. The doctor suspects acute ischaemic heart disease and needs to make a quick decision: should the patient be assigned to the coronary care unit or to a regular nursing bed for monitoring? How do doctors make such decisions? And how should they?


Those without years of formal medical training (and I suspect even many with such education) would probably address the last question with some variation of this answer: "In such a situation, a good doctor would collect as much information as possible about the patient, weigh it against the backdrop of the current emergency, consider all possible options, and then make the best decision." Such advice is commonly found in decision-making textbooks. What the authors of the article concluded - and this squares with my own research and thinking - is that such an answer may, in fact, be wrong. Collecting as much information as possible could be timeconsuming when every second counts, and considering all possible options could burden the doctor with choices that are far-fetched, unrealistic and, quite possibly, unhelpful to the health of the patient. Think this doesn't apply to you in the business world? Think again. "Heuristics" may not be a word you use every day, but heuristics enter into most decisions you make.


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