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Guidelines to improve decision making

The leader who would become a competent tactician must first close his mind to the alluring formulae that well-meaning people offer in the name of victory. To master his difficult art he must learn to cut to the heart of the situation, recognize its decisive elements and base his course of action on these. The ability to do this is not God-given, nor can it be acquired overnight; it is a process of years. He must realize that training in solving problems of all types, long practice in making clear, unequivocal decisions, the habit of concentrating on the question at hand, and an elasticity of mind, are indispensable requisites for the successful practice of the art of war.

COL George C. Marshall, Infantry in Battle (1934)


  • Improving practical thinking. Practical thinking captures the strengths of how we think for everyday problems, calling on experience more than formal models. Practical thinking includes creative and critical elements. Creative thinking techniques help to generate new information. Critical thinking brings out differences that would normally not be obvious Both types of thinking help to fill in gaps in knowledge and resolve uncertainty. Signs of a practical thinker include a willingness to try alternate approaches to thinking, being open to others’ positions, being prepared to think about issues instead of ignoring or dismissing them, and asking insightful questions.
  • Applying guidelines. There is no perfect set of guidelines for success; to improve requires self-reflection and hard work to adopt new habits. Making one’s thinking habits more deliberate will prompt self-reflection and through practice eventually should make the improved thinking less effortful. Improved thinking strategies will create greater self-confidence, making it more likely that challenges will be addressed than ignoring them.
  • Moving thinking upstream. Thinking ahead and predicting potential ways that a situation assessment may be wrong or that a course of action could depart from what’s anticipated will make one better prepared to handle the unknown. Having identified and thought about various contingencies will better prepare one for various future events.
  • Finding hidden assumptions. Coming up with reasons against a preferred conclusion or option instead of in favor of that conclusion or option will improve thoroughness of reasoning and give one a basis for contingencies that may occur.
  • Keeping track of unexpected events. A natural tendency is to discount information when it does not fit into our expectations. Over time accumulated unexpected information can cause one to shift one’s understanding of a situation. The first step in this direction is to pay special attention to information that does not fit into expectations.
  • Thinking from varied perspectives. Looking at problems from different perspectives can improve one’s understanding of a situation, solution goals, and available options. Taking multiple perspectives helps to understand situations, find new or creative solutions, and reason about solutions. Any shortcoming or restriction in one’s perspective is a possible source of problems in reasoning. Problem solvers can adopt different perspectives by taking on the role of another (e.g., the enemy, adjacent unit commander), using new/different frames of reference, shifting attention or importance about various problem elements, reversing the goal, etc. These require an openness of mind to be willing to apply a different perspective and practice in flexibility at shifting perspectives.
  • Applying practical reasoning. There are different ways to improve one’s reasoning ability. One way is to have a standard set of questions to ask oneself when faced with uncertainty, when there is an over-willingness to accept what is heard, or when there is a lack of critical thinking. One set of questions is the following:
  • What if? (e.g., what if this assessment were not the case?)
  • What else? (e.g., what else could be happening?)
  • So what? (e.g., is there a practical difference?)
  • What specifics? (e.g., can claims be confirmed with specific information?)
  • Is there a weak link? (e.g., are there any inconsistencies or confusions?)
  • What is unexpected? (e.g., is there incomplete or poor reasoning?)
  • Adapting to the situation. By increasing the awareness of one’s own thinking, mental capabilities can be allocated to the problems at hand. One needs to learn how he or she thinks, the patterns and strategies that are used and that have developed naturally throughout one’s life. Being better in touch with these can give one what is needed to increase the chances for successful problem resolution. To guide thinking we should think deliberately about how to solve problems and decide. This process is similar to decision triage. Use the GO-FITE-WIN questions to remind how to plan your thinking:
  • What are Goals and Obstacles of thinking?
  • How Familiar is the situation?
  • How Important is it?
  • How much Time is available?
  • How much Effort is required for an acceptable level of effort?
  • What’s Important Now?

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