The importance of slow thinking in organisational environments

Popularised by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Kahneman describes two systems that drive our decision-making:

System 1: This is fast, automatic, and emotional thinking. It relies on heuristics (mental shortcuts) and biases to make quick judgments. This is frequently described as “thinking fast.”

System 2: This is slower, deliberate, and logical thinking. It’s effortful and used for complex problems or situations requiring careful analysis. This aligns with “thinking slow.”

While the phrasing might be different, both concepts emphasise the importance of using both fast and slow thinking for effective decision-making.

On the other hand, the “think slow, act fast” principle, as articulated by scholars like Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner, emphasises the importance of careful consideration and deliberation in decision-making processes, followed by decisive and prompt action. This principle draws on insights from psychology, sociology, and behavioural economics to understand how individuals and organisations can navigate complex and uncertain environments effectively. 

Here’s a breakdown of this principle:

  1. Thinking Slow: This aspect involves taking the time to thoroughly analyse information, weigh alternatives, and consider potential outcomes before making decisions or taking action. It encourages a deliberate and systematic approach to problem-solving, characterised by critical thinking, reflection, and consultation with relevant stakeholders. By thinking slowly, individuals and organisations can minimise cognitive biases, avoid impulsive decisions, and make more informed choices based on evidence and rational analysis.
  2. Acting Fast: Once a decision has been made or a course of action has been chosen, the “act fast” component emphasizes the importance of swift and decisive implementation. It recognizes that in dynamic and competitive environments, delays in execution can lead to missed opportunities, loss of momentum, and increased risk of failure. Acting fast requires agility, adaptability, and a willingness to take calculated risks, enabling individuals and organisations to capitalise on emerging opportunities, respond to changing circumstances, and maintain a competitive edge.

By combining thoughtful deliberation with timely execution, the “think slow, act fast” principle seeks to optimise decision-making processes and enhance performance in various domains, including organising and running large-scale projects. It acknowledges the inherent tension between the need for thorough analysis and the imperative for action, advocating for a balanced approach that leverages the strengths of both modes of thinking. Ultimately, by adopting this principle, individuals and organisations can improve their ability to navigate complexity, manage uncertainty, and achieve their goals effectively.

The “think slow, act fast” principle is particularly relevant in situations where there are high stakes, significant uncertainty, and the potential for serious consequences. It encourages decision-makers to avoid rushing into decisions based on intuition or incomplete information, while also emphasising the importance of timely action once a well-informed decision has been made.

Flyvbjerg and Gardner have discussed this principle in the context of various fields, such as project management, risk assessment, and crisis response, where the ability to make thoughtful decisions and execute them swiftly can have a significant impact on outcomes.

In large scale projects and programmes, the need to think slow becomes more important. Learning and feedback can take serious amounts of time and therefore require some brave decision-making. Get it right though and the delivery execution can become fast, and be of much higher quality.  Overall, far less time, money and resource is wasted and costs associated with delays are reduced. Projects are completed. Governance, finance and procurement decisions become easier.

Taking the time to learn and feedback

In terms of planning and re-planning, cost and resource usage this approach appears counter-productive. It flies in the face of the need to get started and get finished projects. It becomes hard to defend on political and social grounds in many organisations. It seems to go against the urgency to create more shareholder value or save taxpayers money.  So what do leaders need to do to think slow and act fast?  When do leaders know the time is right to be bold?

If you’re interested in listening to and sharing ideas, please get in contact.  We’re happy to chat..