Decision Making: It’s not what you think (Part 1) – A Guest Blog by Henry Mintzberg

Posted by MarchFifteen & filed under Leadership Development.

You all know how proud we are of our partnership with CoachingOurselves. We strongly believe in the intellectual stimulus combined with practicality its learning methodology provides to our community of clients.
The following three blogs (posted weekly) showcase Henry Mintzberg’s perspectives on the “burden” each of us managers carry, requiring critical judgment and courage: decision making.
We hope you like this three part series and join the discussion.

Decision Making: It’s not what you think (Part 1)

by Henry Mintzberg with introduction by Phil LeNir

In 2007, Henry Mintzberg and I started a company called CoachingOurselves. We brought a reflective approach to developing leaders and managers to the enterprise learning space. There are no lectures, no disconnect from the workplace, just group of managers developing together during 90 minute sessions, guided by themed discussion workbooks. These topic workbooks are developed by world renowned management and business thinkers. They are a key tool for a 70:20:10 based leadership development strategy.

In this blog I have included the topic titled Decision Making: It’s not what you think. It has been split into 3 parts, with the first part below, and subsequent parts to be released in the coming weeks. To get real value out of this topic gather your management team together for discussion and reflection on your decision making process. Simply begin a discussion by answering the proposed question(s), and let the discussion go wherever it needs to go.

As opposed to the classical view based on classroom training or e-learning, Henry and I believe managers and leaders learn best through reflection on natural experience in the light of conceptual ideas. This approach has been successfully used by hundreds of organizations around the world to deliver leadership and organizational development programs and initiatives.

Following is the first part of the CoachingOurselves topic: Decision Making, It’s not what you think, by Henry Mintzberg:

Management Happenings

For the next 10 minutes, share a recent “Managerial Happening” related to your approach to decision MAKING. This could be a situation that occurred with an employee/partner/colleague and you felt you resolved it in a way that the rest of the group would find interesting. Or perhaps it didn’t get resolved and the group could help you.

Use your team as friendly consultants and help each other resolve your various management issues.

After this 10-minute discussion, begin the topic.

Take turns reading the pages aloud, discuss the material to create a shared understanding, and encourage each other to answer the questions and participate in the reflections.

Topic Overview

Sometimes we think too much about our decisions. Perhaps we would do better to see them more insightfully. Or just act on them in order to think about them better.

This session contrasts “thinking first” with “seeing first” and “doing first” as approaches to decision making, using examples from finding a mate to handling decisions at work.

The objectives for this topic are to:

  • Get beyond thinking in decision making, to seeing, and doing
  • Appreciate that we have to act in order to think, as much as think in order to act
  • Approach some key decisions differently

Thinking First

We all know how to make decisions-that’s easy.  First we define the issue, then we diagnose its causes, next we design possible solutions, and finally we decide which is best.  And, oh yes, we have to implement the solution. We think and then we do.

But is this how it always works? Is that how you made your latest decision at work? What about choosing your mate; is this how you did it?

Some decisions don’t so much as erupt.  Here is how Alexander Kotov, the chessmaster, described a sudden insight that followed a lengthy analysis:

“So, I mustn’t move the knight. Try the rook again…At this point you glance at the clock. ‘My goodness! Already 30 minutes gone on thinking about whether to move the rook or the knight’ … And then suddenly you are struck by the idea – why move rook or knight? What about B-QN1? And without any more ado, without any analysis at all, you move the bishop. Just like that.”

Seeing First

Insight – seeing into – suggests that decisions, or at least actions, may be driven as much by what is seen as by what is thought.  Mozart said the best part about creating a symphony was being able to “see the whole of it at a single glance in my mind.

Another model, developed by G. Wallas in the 1920’s, identifies four steps in creative discovery:

Preparation > Incubation > Illumination > Verification

Preparation has to come first.  As Louis Pasteur put it, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Deep knowledge, usually developed over years, is followed by incubation, during which the unconscious mind mulls over the issue.  Then, with luck (like Archimedes in the bathtub), there is that flash of illumination, the “insight”.  The unconscious mind returns later to make the logical argument – the verification.

Great insights may be rare, but what industry cannot trace its origins to one or more of them? Moreover, little insights occur to all of us all the time.  No one should accept any approach to decision making that ignores insight.

As a group, discuss examples of how insight enters into decision making in your organization.


Next week we will be featuring the second installment of this three part series on decision making.

Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Canada, is an internationally renowned speaker and author on organization and management.  He has been described by Tom Peters as “perhaps the world’s premier management thinker”.  Henry has published 150 articles and fifteen books, including Managers Not MBAs, from which CoachingOurselves has sprung. To learn more about Henry Mintzberg visit

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