Skip to main content

Rodolfo Goulart sabatino

Even the most brilliant executives have them: times when they've made dumb decisions that left them asking themselves "what was I thinking?" The reason is we're all prone to lapses due to "mind-bugs," says Larry Bloom, author of The Cure for Corporate Stupidity. In an interview with The Globe and Mail's Wallace Immen, the former chief executive officer for Bio-Lab Inc. and founder of educational software company Xmente LLC in Atlanta describes how to diagnose and debug your thinking:

What are mind-bugs?

In 30 years in business I've experienced my own flawed thinking and I continue to encounter otherwise bright people in the corporate world who say: "what was I thinking when I made that decision?" Just like computer software can have bugs, we can have bugs in how we think and make decisions. They're the underlying cause of corporate stupidity, harmful decisions that are made when people simply should have know better. And they're on the increase as the pace of decision-making in corporations is accelerating and the rush to make decisions leaves more room for error.

Are mind-bugs inherent?

Our brains are wired to give priority to survival and we don't have to think about the flinch we feel that makes us take our hand off a hot stove. The brain is just wired to interpret a threat to our survival and act instinctively. That was a great advantage when dinosaurs could eat humans for lunch but it's held on and we use the exact same circuitry to react to social and business threats. So we're born with the capacity for flawed thinking; give us another 2,000 years and maybe we'll evolve better ways to react.

What are the four strains of mind bugs?

First, you have bugs of sufficiency. They include the fallacy that a leader must be better informed and have better instincts than others just because he or she is the leader. They also include making snap judgments and sticking with them, and marginalizing people who disagree.

Next, you have accuracy bugs. These include making generalizations without evidence to back them up, rejecting new facts that contradict existing norms, and seeing patterns in random data that don't exist in reality.

Then, there are bugs based on beliefs. Becoming so attached to one outcome that we fail to look for flawed thinking, closing our minds to other perspectives and believing that future events will happen just as they did in the past.

Finally, there are social bugs. We can end up unquestioningly conforming our thinking to the thinking of our group, sticking to the status quo or hiding weaknesses by presenting an overly favourable picture of the situation to others.

So how do we overcome bugs and corporate stupidity?

As Albert Einstein so famously said: "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former."

To get around stupidity we have to become aware of things that may be happening unconsciously and start to look consciously for things that cause us not to see things for what they really are. An example is watching a magic trick. Our eyes see something that our brain knows can't be real but we can be deceived into thinking that it is real. We can accept that and just enjoy being fooled, but if we take a pause and think for a moment the brain will realize it's been tricked and if we spend more time to study the trick, we can see how it's done.

And that's when you recommend taking a mental break?

In the technology world, software programmers insert a breakpoint to suspend execution of a program at certain points in order to look for bugs in the often-times millions of lines of code. To take command of our thinking, we need to do the same by inserting a mental breakpoint to debug our thoughts. Every decision we make should be within a context that's supported by evidence and data.

But we also have to be aware of the context of our decision. Mind-bugs can also develop depending on the state of mind you're in at the time. Understanding that in one situation there may be no mind-bugs happening but in another situation – like having to make a snap decision – there can be several mind-bugs at work, you'll want to take more time looking for bugs in your thinking.

What has to happen in the break?

I call it a 30-second scan; how long it takes depends on you. I recommend you do a virus scan by asking yourself six yes or no questions:

Have we sufficiently considered...

1. How the personal stake or vested interest for each person or group involved could influence this evaluation?

2. How beliefs and desires may have coloured or influenced any judgments or inferences?

3. Are there any critical gaps in the sufficiency of the information used to support our arguments?

4. What makes us confident that the data we are depending on is accurate?

5. What mind-bugs may be present that could affect our judgment?

6. Should I continue with this decision if my answer is no to any of the first five questions?

If the answer to question six is no, you shouldn't continue until you have done more to debug the process and do a quality control check before the decision is finalized.

And it's ultimately up to the leader to run the scan?

I'm a recovering CEO and I know from experience that everyone else wants to look good to a CEO. So for instance if the CEO is attached to an acquisition are you inclined to look for the factors that will make me less inclined to do the deal or ones that will support it? People can be selective to choose data that supports their initial assumption and ignore other information that could make it a bad choice.

I'm not suggesting we need a new process on top of decision making, I'm just saying you're much less likely to say "what was I thinking?" if you put in some pauses – breakpoints – that do a quality control on the assumptions you're using.