Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking is full of examples of how we make decisions—right or wrong—without really knowing what we are doing. “It just feels right,” experts will say. Given the need to justify decisions, and given that specialized skills are not always available, vendor selection almost always becomes an endless exercise in analysis-paralysis, that endless cycle of questioning and rethinking that is just the opposite of a blink.
In another much older book, Language, Truth, and Logic, British philosopher Alfred Jules Ayer makes a similar point about arguments used to justify ethical and philosophical viewpoints. Ayer points out that people often come up with reasons to justify their positions after they have already made up their minds. In other words, the process of analyzing alternatives, if we are honest, bears more resemblance to creating a rationale for the choice we favor rather than a dispassionate exploration of options.
When Problems Arise
Later on, when problems arise that could have been foreseen, emotions run high and finger pointing starts. If the expert made a decision based on “what felt right,” some important implementation constraint may have been overlooked. On the other hand, if a vendor selection was made using a lengthy analysis process to determine what’s right for the organization, it's likely that it took so long that the rationale for the decision was obsolete by the time the decision was made. In both cases, it’s up to the technical executive to decide whether the analysis or the experts’ “blink” was really right.
Taking a step back in this process to establish more clarity about requirements is not easy to do. We recommend a technique called The Question Game (See Using the Question Game for Business/IT Alignment), but there are many ways to gain a deeper understanding. A book we published called Lost in Translation recommends describing requirements in plain business terms before giving any thought to technology.
In most cases, however, company executives still make default choices, usually based on industry standards, selecting "safe vendors" like Microsoft or IBM or following industry “best practices.” To appear to have more balance, they may try to weigh other choices through a lengthy analysis of other vendors in the space, tweaking their requirements into decision matrices with complex weighting algorithms. Not surprisingly, these matrices usually wind up validating the executive's original default choice.
In many cases, asking a real expert for his or her “blink” can yield a result much faster. But consulting such an expert takes a new breed of IT management who are willing to take additional risk in making bold decisions. After all, the decision may be wrong. Nobody ever got fired for selecting Microsoft, IBM, or the industry best practice solutions. On the other hand, nobody ever really created a large competitive advantage for the business by selecting those solutions. You have to be willing to take some risks if you want to implement a better solution that defies the status quo and creates unique business advantage.