The Nine Levers for Better Decisions

The different ways we can strengthen performance.

Posted Aug 23, 2015

To help people make better decisions we have nine paths to follow — we can think of these as levers we can use to gain impact. These levers are ways to improve cognitive performance — not only decision making, but also judgments, sensemaking, planning and even coordination.

First lever: Clarifying the goals. We can improve performance by clarifying the goals. Heath and Heath describe the SMART concept, goals that are specific, measurable, actionable, relevant and timely. Klein has described a Management by Discovery method to help people adapt their goals when working on wicked problems. Decision quality will improve with goals that are clearer or just more adapted to circumstances, 

Second lever: Structuring the decision. We can find better ways to structure the choices we face. Thaler and Sunstein have described several ways to do this:  setting the defaults (e.g., asking people to reject being an organ donor rather than asking if they were willing to donate an organ if they die in a car accident); setting the anchors (influencing people’s estimates by providing more accurate anchors for them to adjust), minimizing loss so that you don’t run into loss aversion (e.g., taking retirement investments out of future salary increases rather than out of current salary); reducing options (because people grow frustrated when asked to choose between too many options). Heath and Heath have suggested other methods here. One is the use of sunk costs by giving people credit for partial fulfillment of a task even before they start. Dweck has shown the effect of priming the identity a person adopts, encouraging students to think of themselves as hard workers rather than as people who always ace tests, using a mental model of a brain as a muscle rather than a device with a fixed capacity). Along these lines, Heath and Heath talk about re-structuring a person’s identity by addressing three questions: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation? For example, homeowners can be made to act in more civic-minded ways by helping them compare themselves to more civic-minded neighbors. This helps to shift their default position.    

Third lever: Training. Principles of effective training are fairly well established. However, training is one of the most expensive levers to use. And in most situations people don’t have time for training. So we may want to turn to other methods such as on-the-job learning (Fadde and Klein) in which people can use their job experiences to increase skills. The greater the skill level, the better the decision performance.

Fourth lever: Checklists. In many situations, job aids such as checklists can augment or substitute for training. Checklists are particularly valuable for procedural tasks, such as taking off in an airplane, which are easily disrupted in settings that are filled with interruptions. Gawande has described the different ways checklists can improve performance. However, checklists become less useful when the situation is more complex and ambiguous.

Fifth level: Incentives. People should work harder to make better decisions if they receive the right incentives. The VIP treatment is to set incentives that are Visible, Immediate and Personal. Incentives are one of the most popular levers, but are surprisingly ineffective in most situations because it is so difficult to link actions to outcomes. And if we provide very simple incentives, we run the risk of workers cutting corners so they can achieve the objective even if it means degrading performance overall.

Sixth lever: Using behavioral engineering. Decision quality should improve if we design the options more cleverly, preventing mistakes rather than setting up rules and restrictions. Consider the way woodworking equipment is designed with built-in safeguards so that people cannot lose fingers. Thoughtful design works better than posting notices about the dangers of power saws. It's more effective to move valuables out of reach than to tell a one-year-old "No," when it crawls near something we want to protect.

Seventh lever: Picking the right people. This is perhaps the most powerful lever, but is the least understood and the most poorly applied. If we can find ways to select talented workers, we won’t have to worry about training, incentives, clarifying goals, and so forth.

Eighth level: Using information technology. People will do better if they have access to the information they need, but the technology has to be compatible with the way they make decisions. Militello and colleagues have described the principles of cognitive systems engineering.  

Ninth lever: Designing better organizations. All of the other eight levers will depend on the organization and how it sets barriers to good decision making or facilitates it. Dysfunctional organizations often emphasize error-free performance and rigid adherence to standards, even if these practices make it harder for workers to develop expertise. Or a dysfunctional organization may provide so little guidance that workers are confused and have trouble making any progress. Dysfunctional organizations may have rigid roles and functions that impede adaptation.

We don’t have to be trapped by habits of using only one lever, such as training or incentives. Instead, we can be more adaptive by shifting to different levers, and blends of several levers.