Friday, May 8, 2009


The other day I was driving westbound on Spring Valley Rd before Coit in Richardson, Texas and just before the big Fiesta grocery store on the left. Probably about thirty five yards before the front of the store I spied a pigeon flying eastbound at about windshield height in my right hand lane – directly towards me. I probably wouldn’t have seen the pigeon but this was an almost pure white bird that lit up the early afternoon spring air and caught my eye. I always drive slowly through what I call The Gauntlet for reasons I will address in another post, so speed wasn’t a factor.

This whole incident probably only took a matter of seconds though I was looking for a bailout position in what would be my merciful attempt to avoid a collision. I couldn’t go right (sidewalk) and only the center and left hand lanes were available. There were no other cars near me so I was planning to execute that option. At the last second I decided to stay the course (I don’t know why) and maintained my position in the right lane though at a much slower speed. Just when I would have turned, the pigeon banked right and into the center lane. Had I veered left, I would have most certainly have hit the bird. We both proceeded our separate ways no worse for the experience. I thanked the ultimate power for his guidance of my supposed intuitive steadfastness which, admittedly, was no more than a “gut” response.

I’ve thought about that incident and why we do what we do and how our approach to our decision making abilities can have far reaching effects on all those around us, including pigeons. Hopefully we will have the time and capacity to address all pertinent issues and make educated and not always “gut” decisions. Many times, however, that’s just not possible and we are required to reach into the depths of our life experiences and shared knowledge of those we come into contact with in our daily personal and business lives.

There are professions that especially include Police Officers, Firefighters, Paramedics & Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT), the Military and Doctors (should we in retrospect include stock traders and brokers?), among others that are trained to make those decisions with laser accuracy and with the expectation of a high degree of successful outcomes. There are companies that offer self improvement courses on subliminal decision making where we learn to quickly engage all available resources. There surely should be a segue to material that can teach us how to react and make the correct decisions in non routine and critical tasks. We have learned that grave situations do exist in our world and can present themselves tout de suite in our everyday lives. Playing chicken with a pigeon is not one of those.

Now I’m not a doctor nor am I an expert in psychology, but I have read that the conscious mind cannot deal with the preponderance of complex data required to make successful split second decisions. The simplistic inference is that the attempt to weigh in many factors where all outcomes are considered in a rational cognitive model – an effort that would prompt an educated decision - may not be the best option. It appears that our subconscious mind is better at processing complex problems though that would require sufficient life experiences and problem solving skills that can lay the foundation for successful “gut” decisions.

We have always heard about those who intellectualize problems or business/personal situations and take forever to make substantive though routine decisions invoking images of a deer in the headlights. I’ve seen this happen in business and can recall a major manufacturer that built so many barriers and roadblocks in their hiring process that their average time to fill (TTF) some of their entry to mid level sales positions approached ninety days. In that interim they lost valuable ground to their competition with many outstanding candidates losing interest, disgusted with the seeming inability of the company to make timely decisions. They were right.

As a successful hockey goaltender for Lenox School, the Atlanta Knights, AAA Beer Mug, the AAHL All Stars and fifteen minutes of fame as a back up practice goaltender for the Atlanta Flames I learned quickly that technique, reaction time and positioning in the net were critical. You really don’t have time to think about where the puck is going. No doubt a successful goaler’s repertoire includes great fearless involuntary technique though he will ultimately be required to proactively and intuitively react to where he thinks the puck is going. You have to clear your mind of all prattle and trust your involuntary intuition. Hmmmmm. Yes, this is just a piece of the puzzle though you have to understand and master all your tools and resources and then use them effectively. The bottom line is that you have to be alert, prepared and not afraid to proactively engage any situation.

Years ago I prompted my Developmental School students and employees to, “Just Do Something” and imploded when a well known company came up with a similar phrase that help catapult them to leadership in their industry. They realized that if you remain frozen in time and space unable to process all the available information or just sit waiting for that last little tidbit of data that will tip your decision making scales, then that opportunity may be lost and you may not achieve any of your goals.

First, we all need to evaluate our current decision making capacity and available strategies, if any. If you find yourself confused and unable to even conceptualize the decision making process, just ask yourself what you are going to do in case of an emergency (tornado, hurricane, flood, pandemic, pigeons, etc) and how you are going to develop and implement that plan.

Once you know what you have to do, you need to concentrate on how you’re going to perform to mission. Don’t be afraid to be proactive and engage a mental construct that evolves into strategies to develop and maintain these skills (no deer in the headlights here). Aside from administering and enforcing established policies and procedures, we all need to develop verifiable, substantive skills on all levels that will assist us when those difficult decisions confront us.

There are some useful tools available to us that include the 1998 Sources of Power and the 2004 The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work by cognitive psychologist Gary Klein (a good start).

This is an incredibly simplistic approach to an extremely complex dilemma. Don’t worry about “modeling” and statistics and all the other BS that consultants and decision junkies sell. I’m not saying that these are not worthwhile activities, rather that you need a logical starting point and that’s the admission that you have to get with the program and develop this capacity. The recent pandemic scare proves once again that ours is an ever evolving, complex world that requires your undivided attention to the decision making process. Just do it and perhaps you will be able to avoid that pigeon when he comes flying at you on Spring Valley Road…


Ned Buxton

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