Wake up World – who or what are driving the choices we make?

I have developed a passion for challenging some of the basic premises that I see us as individuals and as organisations basing our thinking and actions on. As part of this quest I am enjoying engaging with a diverse range of books and perspectives. This short blog is about the insights I gained from Hello World, How to be human in the age of the machine by Hannah Fry.


For the last 20 years or more I have been working with CEOs and Board members as an adviser. One of the topics that constantly comes up is the question of decision making. How do senior leaders think and work in a way that enables them to make the ‘right’ decisions? What is the information they have that enables them to reach their conclusions, how do they trust it and how quickly can they assess the world around them? The starting point for me has been to help them move from the notion of decisions to the more useful concept of choices.


When we think about MAKING A DECISION there is something in the notion and language of that, that carries with it some very unhelpful and exhausting beliefs. These include that there is a right or wrong, that it is somehow final and difficult to challenge. What I see is that this way of thinking results in many a leader being criticised (mostly in the corridors) for not being able to make a decision, and when they do it is wrong. When I introduce leaders to the idea of moving from decisions to the concept of choices it somehow seems to unlock something in them. They become open to a greater range of data points, they become mentally more attuned to consider intuitive insights, and most importantly they start to ask very powerful and probing questions. In psychological terms what I also find is they become more creative and innovative and far less fearful and protective of their status and need to be right! Ultimately by seeing that at any point we will take what we know at the time and to the best of our ability make a choice – we easily see that with new information and a change of context we can and should change or alter the choice we made.


The challenge of making choices or taking decisions is not new – what is different now is the often quoted but seldom understood BIG DATA. We know it’s there, we know its valuable, we know we contribute to it and we hear that as organisations we will benefit massively from it if we use it well. My fear is that in a similar way to what we saw with financial products like sub-prime, senior executives as well as individuals will fail to understand and therefore question the world of big data. I have always believed that if someone cannot explain things in a way that the average person can understand – buyer beware! I therefore spend much of my time now with senior teams helping them to identify the questions and assumptions they need to explore when presented with overwhelming data. Only by doing this can they create the insights they need to inform the choices they make. The desire we have to increasingly seek facts on which to make the ‘perfect decision’ is being fuelled by the fast-growing industry of data and its close cousin algorithms. I therefore welcomed the work of Hannah Fry in her book Hello World.


Hello World achieves two main things in my view. Firstly, for those of us baffled by the world of data and algorithms she does a great job at explaining that world in a way that is both easy to access and not dumbed down. By far the more important thing that she does is raise the challenge for us to question the power and authority that we unthinkingly give to algorithms, and by association the organisations that sell us their products. She encourages us to ask questions to understand the premises and assumptions that the algorithms are based on and see what the real value of these tools are. Their value in her view is to work with us rather than decide for us. As long as the way the algorithm works is transparent, we can then use these powerful tools as part of our menu of touch points on which to make informed choices.


Do take the time to dip into Hello World (I found it a good treadmill companion) and as you do, it might be fun to ask yourself:


What would be different if you were more mindful of what inspires or manipulates the choices you make?