Decision-making in a world of one hundred billion sensors.

On November 18th, François Hollande addressed an assembly of the mayors of France in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris. Facing a packed auditorium, and without hesitation, the French president announced that his nation will accept 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next couple of years.

Most people would probably suggest that this was a precipitated decision, given that only a few days had elapsed since the tragic events in the City of Light. The European community was still in shock, police raids were being conducted in multiple locations, and political leaders all over the world were spooked.

What made such an announcement even more remarkable was the fact that it had already been reported — albeit prematurely — that one of the assailants had entered the country by infiltrating the refugee influx. Adding to the tension was the fresh memory of the Charlie Hebdo attack, as well as the recent downing of the Russian passenger jet over Egypt and the suicide bombing in Beirut.

So why did Hollande decide to make that announcement? And why didn’t he wait a little longer? After all, he couldn’t possibly have gathered all the necessary intel, let alone processed all of it, in order to fully justify his position.

The science behind decision-making has been studied extensively for decades. Distinguished psychologists have led a phenomenal body of research in this field, and renowned business journals dedicate entire issues to the subject every year.

A fascinating study by Michael Bar-Eli and colleagues showed that professional goalkeepers have a 33% chance of effectively defending against a penalty kick by staying in the center of the goal; however, they choose to do so only 6% of the time, opting instead to dive either left or right. Bar-Eli’s conclusion was that it actually feels better to leap than to stay put, even if it turns out to be the wrong decision. (Note: game-rigging — which has also been widely investigated — could presumably account for some of the behavior observed in goalies, but that’s another conversation).

Although the soccer example might seem harmless and inconsequential in the bigger scheme of things, it reflects one of the most dominant currents of thought when it comes to behavioral economics, which is to demonstrate how essentially irrational human beings can be. As a result, the world’s top researchers and a myriad of leadership consultants are leaning heavily on the need for rigorous data analysis to offset the natural risks of cognitive biases.

Across the board, people want to know how to make better and faster decisions, whether these relate to trading stock, managing companies, or saving lives. Of course, the higher the stakes, the bigger the urge to avoid screwing up.

Given the increasingly volatile and complex environment in which we live, our appetite for estimating outcomes as accurately as possible has become insatiable, mainly in corporate and political circles, where decisions usually bear a lot of responsibility. Making any decision without cross-referencing data-points, testing multiple alternatives and triple checking everything is almost unthinkable for anyone who intends to keep a job.

The on-going technological advances are encouraging (and enabling) this tendency even further, thru the proliferation of mobile devices, wearables, applications, cloud computing and interconnectivity.

Several tech companies estimate that there will be around 100 billion sensors in the world by the year 2020, and that number could exponentially rise to 100 trillion by 2030.

What are the implications of this? Well, it means that we will be monitoring ourselves, each other, and everything else around us like never before. And we’ll be doing so voluntarily, for the most part. It also means that we will have instant access to all the information that we could possibly want. However, according to a study by McKinsey’s Business Technology Office and MGI, this also has the potential to create a huge gap between our data analysis capabilities and our capacity to make sound decisions based on the analysis.

Surely, an infinite stream of information can be empowering. But it can also prompt us to cultivate a reactive mindset, which tends to hinder our ability to distinguish between essential and non-essential data. Add to that the speed at which data is processed, and we can be easily rushed into making bad decisions that can leave a lasting impact.

The bigger challenge in decision-making is that most people tend to associate it with problem-solving, without realizing the critical importance of understanding the problem first.
As data analyst Susan Etlinger would say, “data doesn’t create meaning; we do”.
Rassemblement des maires à Paris - Nov. 18, 2015.

And here is where context has to be factored into the equation. Context is what made that moment at the assembly of mayors in Paris feel so significant. One could tell, by watching the footage, that more than just a few of the attendees seemed skeptical, or even resistant, to some of the president’s comments and suggestions. Who could blame them? Nonetheless, it was quite striking to see all of them wearing the presidential sash — a gesture that gave the official gathering a ceremonial aura.

And as soon as the president ended his 30-minute speech, everybody in the room chanted ‘La Marseillaise’. No band, no instruments; just their scratchy voices, barely in unison. Goosebumps.

Admittedly, the jury is still out on how this thorny and convoluted international dilemma will unfold in the up-coming months and years, but Hollande may have gotten a couple of things right. First, he reminded everyone about France’s ideology, and how its core values must continue to be exemplified. He understood that the whole idea behind terrorism is to provoke a psychological reaction to a set of events, rather than generating the events per se. Therefore, he spoke to the importance of courage, moderation, unity and freedom, emphasizing that those are the best antidotes against fear, extremism, division and hatred. Second, he demonstrated having a grip on the complexity of the European refugee crisis. While an impulsive anti-refugee sentiment is understandable, sealing the borders could make matters significantly worse, as it would force Syria’s ill-prepared neighboring countries — plus Greece — to deal with the problem on their own. And who knows what kind of disaster we would have then.

During turbulent and chaotic times, rushing to conclusions and changing the long-term strategy can easily become one’s default mechanism. Notably, the French leader acknowledged the need for exceptional procedures and temporary restrictions due to a state of emergency, AND unequivocally invited all of his compatriots to not fall into the temptation of closing themselves in.

“Life must continue, fully continue”, he pleaded.

In a world of one hundred billion sensors, we’ll have access to data and tools that provide us with the opportunity to make much better informed decisions than in the past. But this new level of access calls for a new breed of leaders who can handle it effectively.

According to social psychologist Dan Gilbert, human beings have become such a dominant and practically indestructible species that “the only thing that can doom us are our own decisions”.

Indeed, our species stands supreme above all others. When it comes to decision-making, though, we tend to forget that what makes us distinctly unique is the ability to not only decide based on fear and anger, but also based on dreams and purpose.
Ultimately, the most important decisions are as much about about character as they are about science.
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