Posts

Decision-Making and Ketchup

Why nature wants your decision-making process to be fast and frugal and how this is a problem at work

Nature wants your decision-making process to be fast and frugal.

Fast, because the primary purpose of your life, from nature’s evolutionary point of view, is to survive long enough to successfully reproduce. And most choices that might have affected your caveman ancestor’s chances of survival required fast and decisive responses.

Frugal, because the brain accounts for about 20% of our body’s energy usage.
If you waste too much mental effort deciding whether to hunt for game, collect berries or set-out fishing nets, you’ll be needing to collect even more food to refuel your brain.

This can cause a great deal of difficulty when we are faced at work or in our personal lives with a wide range of possible choices.

Have you ever had trouble trying to decide what  to buy in a supermarket? Experiments have shown that when shoppers are presented with a large  amount of potential consumer choices (e.g. chocolates, jam flavors) people actually end up making fewer purchases, and are less satisfied.

There was an episode of the Simpsons where the family visited a new supermarket called”Monstromart”; slogan: “where shopping is a baffling ordeal”. Product choice was unlimited, shelving reached the ceiling, nutmeg came in 12lb boxes and the express checkout had a sign reading, “1,000 items or less”. In the end the Simpsons returned to Apu’s Kwok-E-Mart.

And of course, The Simpson’s is a great mirror for real life. At one point in the last few years, the UK supermarket chain Tesco used to offer 28 tomato ketchups!


In an attempt to cope with the large amount of information and potential choices that we are presented with on a daily basis, we tend to rely on so-called “heuristics” (rules of thumb or mental short-cuts) that help guide our decision-making. In essence, heuristics are decision-making tools that save effort by ignoring some information. They act to reduce and simplify the mental processing of cues and information from our environment.


You’ll have possibly been under the the effects of these heuristics in your own decision-making when you:

  • Picked the same thing that you chose last-time, without even really thinking about it
  • Chose the option that most embodies the kind of thing you wanted (e.g. Heinz for ketchup)
  • Chose the option that you were most recently made aware of, or for which you most recently received information.

We shouldn’t think of these heuristics as a ‘bad thing’ by themselves. Other researchers have argued that  such smart and adaptive heuristics have successfully guided our decision making in various uncertain environments over millions of years of human evolution. When pressured for time and faced with many competing options, “fast and frugal” decision making can potentially enhance the quality of our decisions.

Problems with this at work can arise when we’re not aware of this innate drive for fast and frugal decision-making.

Think back to the last management or board meeting you were in when you were faced with an important decision. Did you feel energised or tired by the process? What was your sense of time during the decision-making: fast, slow, rushed, dragging?

The chances are, that if you felt tired and that time dragged, then you were under nature’s influence to have your decisions be fast and frugal.

If the decision you were all making was complex and important enough to require the attention of the management team or board in the first place, it may be that those heuristic mental short-cuts are not the best way to approach things. The consequences of bad decisions can be severe. Research shows that in business the top five casualties of poor decision-making are customer loyalty, company reputation among customers, profits, company productivity and customer service. And in some working environments they can literally be the difference between life and death.

There are a great many decision-making techniques that can help overcome these shortfalls (some of which I’ve written about previously), but for now, I want to focus just on your awareness of this issue. Here are some of my most significant bits of learning about countering the downsides of these heuristics in decision-making at work:

1. Be aware of people’s innate drive to have their decision-making be ‘fast and frugal’. Is it right, given the decision that you have in front of you, to take a fast and frugal approach? Or is this something that demands a greater investment of time and resources?

2. Don’t be blinded by a dazzling array of seemingly different options. Often the differentiation between various choices is not as significant as it seems (Heinz’ reduced-salt ketchup is possibly pretty much the same as Tesco’s own brand…).
If necessary, categorise your choices so that you can more easily see where the real differences are.

3. Rather than trying to close or narrow the choices down too quickly, open them out first. This is something I learned from being around creative people, who tend to be much slower to close down their options. Although this means they tend to take longer to get things going, I think it can produce new solutions to previously intractable problems. So open it out first – we might be faced with a choice of 28 different kinds of ketchup, but is ketchup really what we need right now?

4. Look out for information about your options that isn’t readily available. Dig a bit. This is the power behind the increasing use of ‘big data’ mining. Even if you don’t have access to big data, try to overcome the ‘reduce and simplify’ tendency that nature would like you to use in her fast and frugal approach to dealing with information.

Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers

Motivating Teams and Businesses

How to re-energise your team and rediscover momentum

Over the last couple of years I’ve worked with several teams, businesses and organisations who felt that they’d become stuck and had lost a large part of the passion and hunger for what they do. As a result, they were grinding along, with every step seeming to cost a huge amount of effort, losing out on opportunities and not really addressing the problems they were facing.

I’ve used the tools and techniques described here to help the top teams in those organisations and businesses to re-energise themselves and find their own momentum to carry them along.

It’s Not Just About Strategy

Some people will tell you that, in those grinding circumstances, your organisation, team or business needs to re-asses its strategic priorities. And I think there’s sometimes some truth in that. BUT – you’ve got to do one or two other things first. Otherwise, when that strategic re-assessment is required, that also just becomes another ineffective part of the soulless grind.

It’s Not Just About ‘Why’

There’s also been a lot of interest recently in Finding Your ‘Why’.
People say, “Always start with your why” – Why did you go into that business, in that segment? – Why does your organisation or your particular team exist?

And this is a good exercise to do when you already have momentum and want to have a coherent marketing message. In fact, the WHY is one of the most powerful marketing messages there is. BUT – my experience has been, when it comes to re-energising your own business and finding that momentum that will carry your team forwards, asking “Why” can stop you dead in your tracks.

It Can Be a Virtuous Circle

I don’t know about you, but I started doing what I do because I felt I might be able to become good at it. Along the way, I had to overcome quite a few obstacles. And as I started to get better at doing it, I liked it more and more. I believe this virtuous circle is the key to re-energising your team and finding momentum, and it’s the one I’ve used successfully with those teams and businesses over the last couple of years.


At its simplest, I think people enjoy doing what they’re good at and that this enjoyment carries them over any obstacles to becoming even better at it. And that overcoming those obstacles is itself a way of getting even better.

Motivating Teams and Businesses


If you want to re-energise your team, business or organisation, and find the momentum to carry them forward, you need to remind people how they’ve already lived this virtuous circle.

I’ve used lots of different tools and techniques to do this. First, because I like experimenting, finding out what works. And second, because I like to take an approach that is tailored specifically to a particular team or business, so that it is really effective and is just for them and they can own it as theirs.

Tools, Techniques and Guiding Principles

Amongst these tools and techniques, there are three guiding principles that I think should always be present:

1. Time

It’s so easy when you’re in the busy day-to-day of running things to forget your story. We tend to focus on what needs to come next and forget to look back, at what’s already happened. As Bob Marley sang:

If you know your history, then you will know where you’re comin’ from…

I’ll always include some way of representing the journey of that team and business from the past through the present. And along the way they’ll also get a chance to remember what they had to overcome to get there and what they had to become good at doing.

There are many different ways to anchor that journey over time, so that the exercise can breathe some life into their experience, but the best ways usually seem to…

2. Play to Their Strengths

For example, if this is a team who are good at thinking in logical steps, I’ll use a ‘spatial anchoring’ technique, marking the timeline of their business along the floor and re-tracing their steps from the past to the present. If they’re a team who listens well, I might have different members represent key points along the timeline, and tell the story of that point as the group moves along. I’ve asked video production companies to make a visual vignettes of their business’s journey. One organisation I visited used bright colours and diagrams everywhere, so I asked them to colour-code and map-out the obstacles they’d had to overcome and the things they’d enjoyed along the way. Another business, good at summarising and explaining to each other, were asked to peg out cards to an impromptu washing-line, each card briefly describing their experiences over the 15 years since their business was founded.

Once you’ve got the timeline represented in some way, with a good recollection of the obstacles they’ve had to overcome and the things they’ve become good at doing, you need to make sure there is…

3. Space for the Future

I don’t know about you, but I want room to grow into. I want to know that there is space and potential in my future. Not too much space, because I don’t want to be rattling around not knowing where to go, but enough space to house my ambitions.

I think teams and businesses are the same. The people that breathe life into those teams and businesses unconsciously need to see, feel and understand that there is a supporting structure that has enough space for an enjoyable future.
This is the key to the second part of what you’re trying to achieve – as well as re-energising them, you need keep them going. To create momentum to carry this team into the future.

Whatever technique you’ve used to represent their journey so far, make sure that it can also extend easily and spaciously into the future. So, for example, if you use the ‘spatial anchoring’ technique described above, make sure there’s also room along the floor to include the future without cramming it into a corner.


Recreate that virtuous circle for your team, business or organisation. Help them to re-live the overcoming of obstacles that got to where you are now, to reconnect with the things you’ve become good at along the way. If you can do that, then I think you are most of the way there to re-energising and rediscovering that enjoyment. If you can do it in a way which deploys those three principles of: Time, Playing to your Strengths and creating Space for the Future, then I believe you will also find the momentum you want.


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers