Decision-Making: From Novice to Expert
Updated: Nov 10
Your life is defined by the decisions you make.
~ Should you take a promotion with more pay, more risk, and more responsibility?
Or is it better to stay comfortable, and safe, but slightly bored in your current job?
~ Should you confront a rude colleague who asks you for unreasonable favors every week?
Or is there a better solution?
~ Should you take the grand, international vacation that you’ve dreamed of for years?
Or would it be wiser to invest that money into home improvements or retirement?
In this article, you'll discover:
Why the traditional way we've been taught to make decisions like these often fails
How experts in some high-hazard industries make decisions quite differently
Four practical steps you can take to improve your decision-making right now
Let's get started.
1) The Story We've Been Told to Believe
For decades, most of us have been taught that the “right” way to make decisions looks something like this:
Identify the problem you need to solve
Collect all relevant information about that problem
Identify a small number of the best potential solutions (perhaps 2 or 3)
Compare, and ideally quantify the evidence of each potential solution
Choose the option that offers the highest value (Klein, Sources of Power, p.10).
This is the Rational Decision Making model.
Many people prize it as the “gold standard” of decision-making, and recommend it be used as widely as possible. Elements of this model are embedded throughout our world. For example:
Traditional economics is founded upon the idea that people are rational decision makers who seek to maximize their own interests
The scientific method relies on collecting and analyzing reams of data to come to statistically significant conclusions
Software coders write algorithms that make data-based decisions faster and more accurately than humans can
Our legal system -- at least in theory -- tries to present all relevant evidence to a jury and asks them to come to a dispassionate decision based on the facts.
2) The Problem with Rational Decision Making
Do most people you know actually use this Rational Decision-Making model to solve their everyday, real-world problems?
Do you actually use this Rational Decision-Making model yourself?
When you do use this method, is it efficient and effective?
For many people in complex adaptive industries like: electric power utilities, emergency services, health care, maritime shipping, construction, the military, and other high-hazard industries, the answers more and more often seem to be, no, no, and no.
Rational Decision Making works well for problems that are: easy-to-define, have clear potential solutions, and that don’t change as we try to solve them. For example:
Which of the 3 pick-up trucks you're looking at buying has better long-term reliability?
Does our new experimental Covid-19 drug work better than a placebo?
Are Index funds a smarter investment than trying to beat the stock market?
3) Wicked Problems
Today, we each face an increasing number of problems that are complex, adaptive, and dynamic. These problems are not well defined. They do not have clear-cut potential solutions. And they change in unpredictable ways even as we try to solve them. For example:
How can a DOE Lab Director best prepare for another pandemic like Covid-19?
How can we best grow our company over the next 5 years: by offering more services in our current market, by seeking out additional markets, or by doing something else?
How should I deal with a fellow senior leader who is respected by his peers and produces excellent results, but who regularly disregards important policies?
Rittel and Webber (1973) call these “wicked problems.”
“The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems.
They are ‘wicked’ problems, whereas science has developed to deal with ‘tame’ problems.” (Rittel & Webber, Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning).
How can you tell if a problem you’re currently facing is wicked or tame?
Rittel and Webber offer a helpful 10-point litmus test. It’s worth reading in its entirety. It includes items like these:
There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem
Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem
Every solution to a wicked problem counts significantly -- there is no opportunity to learn from trial and error. (Rittel & Webber).
Our modern world is full of wicked problems.
Unfortunately, the Rational Decision Making model usually fails when applied to wicked problems.
So, how do front-line experts actually make real-world decisions for wicked problems?
4) How Experts Actually Make Decisions
Imagine this. The Assistant Chief of the Chicago Fire Department arrives on the scene of an active fire. It’s 11:14pm and 48 degrees. There’s a 4-story apartment building with fire and smoke coming out of three windows.
One truck is already using its water cannon to shoot 1,000 gallons of water per minute into one of the windows. Four other fire trucks just arrived. Many other resources are en route.
The Assistant Chief has to assess risks, deploy resources, coordinate dozens of people, maintain safety, communicate with police, city leaders and the press, and adjust her strategy as new resources arrive, and as the fire continually moves and evolves in unpredictable ways.
Many years ago, I briefly served as the 3rd Lieutenant of a rural volunteer fire department. During that time, I led two active fire scenes that were dramatically (absurdly?) simpler than the example above. Yet I still remember feeling humbled when I realized that I was now personally responsible for solving my own little wicked problem.
Gary Klein has spent 30+ years studying how front-line experts make decisions to solve complex, adaptive, wicked problems just like this.
Unlike most researchers, Klein and his team do not use laboratory experiments. Instead, they study expert decision makers in naturally occurring, real-world situations like the fireground commander above.
Klein calls this field of study Naturalistic Decision Making or NDM.
I highly recommend you explore Klein's excellent book "Streetlights & Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making."
Meantime, here are three principles that help summarize 30+ years of research and experience on how front-line experts actually make decisions about wicked problems.
5) Three Principles of Expert Decision-Making
Principle 1 -- Experts can do more than they can say
Think of a wicked problem that you’re expert at solving.
Can you accurately explain how you make decisions about it?
Recall an expert you know who consistently succeeds at solving wicked problems. For example:
An engineer who troubleshoots a complex electrical system to find a hidden fault
An accountant who scans a company’s year-end financial statement and knows within 1-2 minutes if that company’s is performing well or not
A Nurse Practitioner who quickly senses that a patient’s minor cough, fever and headache are likely symptoms a rare but serious underlying disease
When I ask experts like these to explain how they perform these complex tasks, the honest ones often say something like, “I don’t know. I just do it.”
Simply put, experts can do more than they can say.
We call this “Polanyi’s Paradox.” (Source).
Many tasks that are relatively “tame” and that involve written procedures, rules, standards, etc. still require tacit knowledge to perform successfully. So, tacit knowledge plays a role in nearly every job we do.
“Now we see tacit knowledge opposed to explicit knowledge; but these two are not sharply divided. While tacit knowledge can be possessed by itself, explicit knowledge must rely on being tacitly understood and applied.
Hence all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge. A wholly explicit knowledge is unthinkable.” (Polanyi, Knowing and Being, p.144).
Experts who solve wicked problems can usually can’t explain their entire decision-making process. They can do more than they can say. Why? Because expert decision making is primarily tacit, non-conscious, and intuitive, not explicit. This is a major difference between a novice and an expert.
Imagine a novice manager in their first year on the job. When they assemble a team, they can likely tell you exactly why they chose each person for that team. They may even have an explicit list of notes on: experience, personality traits, or availability. But an expert manager with 5+ years of experience may assemble a different team that performs better, but they can’t articulate exactly why they chose each person for the team.
When a novice (<1 year experience) can’t explain how they perform a certain task, they may not understand the task very well yet. But when an expert (5+ years experience) can’t explain how they perform a certain task, it may mean their decision-making has evolved from the explicit to the tacit.
Principle 2 -- We recognize a pattern, then recall a similar experience
Gary Klein originally studied officers of fire departments to see how they made decisions. He was surprised to discover that what experienced officers did was to quickly assess the fire in front of them, then notice what memories quickly came to mind of other similar fires they had previously fought.
Novices can’t use this process because they don’t yet have enough experience to have built up a mental “catalog” of dozens of similar fires they have previously fought. They may have memories of only a few similar fire calls. Or they may have none at all.
Speed counts when responding to many wicked problems, like active fire scenes. So when decisions are needed within minutes or seconds, it’s not practical for novices to confer with a mentor, refer to a textbook, or Google a solution. Experts have multiple, relevant first-hand experiences instantly available from memory. Novices don’t.
It’s tempting to assume that experts recall multiple similar experiences from memory, then use a bit of Rational Decision Making to quickly compare their options and choose the best one.
But that’s not what happens.
“It was not that the commanders were refusing to compare options; rather, they did not have to compare options… The commanders’ secret was that their experience let them see a situation, even a non-routine one, as an example of a prototype, so they knew the typical course of action right away.
Their experience let them identify a reasonable reaction as the first one they considered, so they did not bother thinking of others. They were not being perverse. They were being skillful. We now call this strategy recognition-primed decision-making.” (Klein, Sources of Power, p.17).
Principle 3 -- Experts use procedures, guidelines, principles, and tacit skill
It’s easy to be impressed by the mysterious vault of experience and tacit knowledge that experts possess and that novices don’t. It may be tempting to assume that experts use experience and tacit knowledge instead of the many policies, procedures, principles, and guidelines that novices have to follow.
But that’s a false comparison.
Remember, every Fire Chief started out as a rookie. Every Astronaut started out with their first flying lesson. Every Physician started out as a first-year medical student. Every expert started out as a novice. So how do novices become experts?
Nearly every novice starts by learning step-by-step procedures to solve “tame” problems.
Novice firefighters learn how to properly operate their Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) just like I did.
Novice EMTs learn how to accurately measure blood pressure, pulse and other vital signs just like I did.
Novice paratroopers learn how to quickly respond to common emergencies like "crossed risers" just like I did.
Novices rarely jump from basic step-by-step procedures, directly to expert-level, tacit knowledge. That would be risky, confusing, and frustrating for both the organization, and the novices.
Instead, novices in most industries become experts by gradually mastering more and more complex jobs using these four progressive decision making methods:
6) Four Decision-Making Methods That Experts Use
First -- Explicit procedures – Step-by-step instructions that tell you what to do and how to do a task. Examples include the:
~15 steps a nurse follows to setup an IV in a patient's arm
Dozens of steps that an aircraft mechanic follows to prepare the engine of a 737 for maintenance
Secret family recipe you use to bake home-made pumpkin pies for the holidays
Second -- Guidelines / ROTs – Brief, written or spoken “Rules of Thumb.” They tell you what to do, but not how to do it. Guidelines help guide you in situations that are too complex, adaptive or wicked for strict procedures to cover. For example:
In health care, “First, do no harm.”
In investing, “Pay yourself first.”
In the military, “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.”
Third -- Principles – Very brief descriptions of how a complex system works, but not what to do in that system. Only an expert, or expert-in-training has enough experience to derive their own guidelines and procedures from accepted principles. The best principles are counter-intuitive, thought-provoking, and often funny because they pack a LOT of truth into very few words. For example:
In the military, “Half an hour's reconnaissance beats three days of speculation."
In courtroom law, “Juries don’t decide what to believe. Juries decide who to believe.”
In negotiations, "People don't argue with their own conclusions."
Fourth -- Tacit Skill – The unspoken ability that experts use to solve complex problems without being able to explain it. Tacit Skill is based on internalized experiences from adapting procedures, guidelines and principles to increasingly wicked problems over many years of deliberate practice. For example:
An experienced nurse named Darlene visited a premature baby with no obvious problems or symptoms. Yet Darlene quickly got a hunch that something was wrong. Her expert decision making detected a "constellation of symptoms" -- several very subtle signs that meant nothing in isolation, but taken together indicated that Melissa was in the early stages of sepsis -- a common and deadly disorder among preemies. Darlene's inexplicable gut hunch was on target and saved Melissa’s life. Please see the original story in (Klein, The Power of Intuition, pp.15-19).
A famous art museum in San Francisco wanted to buy a rare statue sculpted 2,000 years ago in ancient Rome. The cost was a sobering $10 million. The museum’s leaders conducted dozens of sophisticated scientific tests over several months to be certain the statue was genuine. As one final check, they invited two Greek antiquities experts to examine the statue and give their honest, non-scientific assessment of it. Within just 2 minutes of viewing the statue, both experts warned that something wasn’t right. But they couldn't articulate exactly what. Understandably alarmed, the museum's leaders investigated the statue’s ownership more deeply, and discovered that the statue was in fact a very high-quality forgery created in the 1980s. The museum saved $10 million and earned worldwide respect. Read the original story in (Gladwell, Blink, pp.3-8).
7) Two Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q: Research including Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast & Slow” seems to prove that humans have a lot of Cognitive Biases. So, shouldn’t we focus on understanding and overcoming these cognitive biases to improve our Rational Decision Making?
A: Here’s one of the many questions that researchers design then ask the volunteers in their studies that supposedly reveal cognitive biases. “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” (Source).
Most people answer 10 cents. But that’s incorrect. The true answer is 5 cents. Here’s the problem with this question and with virtually every other question like it. The question is unrealistic, even contrived. Do you know anyone who went to buy baseball gear and actually got asked this question? Ever?
The question was deliberately designed to ensure that no one who answered the question had any previous real-world experience with this question. Questions like this are specifically designed to make real-world experience irrelevant. Questions like this are designed to force people into giving a quick, intuitive (System 1) answer that's incorrect. Simply put, it’s a trick question.
“The research doesn’t really demonstrate that we are irrational. Rather, we use effective strategies in our thinking but these have some limitations that researchers can exploit.” (Klein, Streetlights and Shadows, p.55).
Q: We successfully “proceduralize” many tasks. So, why can’t we just write better procedures to cover all tasks?
A: Procedures definitely seem to help us get some work done safely and efficiently. So, if a few procedures are good, then more would be better, right? That thinking leads us to the notion that we can “proceduralize everything.”
Here’s why that doesn’t work. As Polanyi said earlier, “explicit knowledge must rely on being tacitly understood and applied.” This means that even the clearest, most explicit procedure still needs at least some expert decision making to apply it in practice. If you’ve ever tried to assemble a brand new barbeque grill or bicycle just by following the step-by-step instructions, I know you understand!
Could you write a procedure for your morning commute into work? Really? Would you include specific instructions to handle every possible variation or contingency like a hailstorm, or a flat tire, or getting lost? Good luck. Procedures can indeed be the primary work guidance method we use for “tame” problems like fixing a water pump on a car. And even wicked problems usually involve some tame steps for which procedures are useful.
But in general, the more wicked the job, the more that experts use Guidelines, Principles, and Tacit Skill above and beyond procedures by themselves.
8) How to Improve Your Own Decision Making
Start by learning and practicing some key Procedures.
Then gradually learn more and more Guidelines and Principles.
Finally, get mentoring from trusted experts to develop your Tacit Skill to the best of your potential.
OK, let's unpack that a bit.
As a novice, start applying procedures to solve simple problems in your field. Don't assume that procedures are always correct, up-to-date, or useful. Often they're not.
Instead start applying procedures to get yourself some low-risk, low-cost, real-world, hands-on experience quickly. A series of quick, small, consistent wins will dramatically boost your momentum and confidence, too. Don't aim to learn multiple procedures, with the intention of practicing them all at some future date. Instead, learn one. Then practice it and debrief it as soon as possible. Then learn, practice and debrief another one, etc.
For example: when first learning how to take a quick medical history, every Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) trainee learns to use the SAMPLE procedure. Ask your patient about their:
Past medical history
Last food or drink
Events leading up to the current problem
This Action-Reflection learning cycle is the best way to start developing your own professional judgment. You can usually do this within the first few days of learning a new skill.
As you apply procedures, you'll quickly come face to face with problems that your procedures don't cover. Or worse, you'll encounter problems in which you sense your procedures would be misleading or dangerous.
When this happens, ask your trusted instructors and experienced colleagues what Guidelines they rely on in this situation. Seek out mentors who are wise, authentic, and successful -- the quiet professionals. Avoid those who are loud, trendy, or "posing."
When you get two or more incompatible Guidelines, ask yourself, "Which Guideline applies here the most?" Rely on your most trusted colleagues and your own professional judgement to decide which Guideline to choose in a given situation. Then test it out as safely as you can, then debrief, discuss, and continually refine your knowledge of which Guidelines to use in which situations. Use After Action Reviews to accelerate your progress here. Collect the most useful Guidelines you find.
You can often get to this point within a few weeks after starting to learn a new skill.
For example, an EMT who is a few weeks into their training might learn guidelines or rules-of-thumb like:
"When in doubt, give oxygen"
"For domestic disputes, let police secure the scene first."
"Never argue in front of a patient or their family."
As you encounter more complex, adaptive and wicked problems, you won't know which Guidelines to apply. At this point, ask your trusted instructors and experienced colleagues what Principles they use in similar situations.
Principles are more abstract than Guidelines. Principles only tell you how a complex system works. They don't tell you how to work with that system. There are simply too many variables and options. You and your most trusted instructors and experienced colleagues will wind up sharing the wisest Principles you each know and what Guidelines and Procedures each of you have derived from those Principles.
Decide which Principles you trust. Experiment with them in real-life, and collect the ones that give you the best long-term results. (Beware of shortcuts).
When you encounter a problem that Procedures or Guidelines can't solve, ask yourself, "Which Principle applies here the most?" After you start to learn a new skill, it may take you several months to get to this level.
For example, after an EMT is running calls, treating patients and interacting with other providers in the field, they will learn from veteran EMTs or Paramedics principles like these:
"Gunshot exit wounds are worse than entrance wounds."
"The most important person to take care of on scene is you."
"90% of ALS (advanced life support) is BLS (basic life support)."
"All bleeding stops eventually."
Many principles will seem strange or confusing at first. Often, the best way to explain a given principle is by telling the context-rich "origin story" for that principle. The real-world stories I've heard from paratroopers, firefighters, EMTs and other experts are among the most fascinating & useful stories I've ever heard. I still retell many of those stories in the Keynotes, Workshops and Event Reviews I lead today.
Once you've had several years of experience, you will become the trusted mentor and experienced operator that your colleagues look up to. You won't always be right. But your judgment, especially for wicked problems, will likely be far better on average than any other option. You'll know better than most anyone else when and how to apply Procedures, Guidelines and Principles.
Quite often you'll apply a mix of all three. You've collected dozens of the most useful Guidelines and Principles in your field. You've spent years testing them out in real-world situations and by comparing them with other experts in your field.
At this point, the artificial distinctions between Procedures, Guidelines and Principles have all but disappeared. For most wicked problems, you take action using a blend of all three methods, without having to think consciously through each detail.
For example, many years ago, I and a veteran Paramedic named Deirdre were rapidly transporting a patient to a hospital. We were in rural Albemarle, County, Virginia, late at night, moving fast over one-lane country roads with red lights flashing and sirens blaring. The hospital was still a long 30 minutes away. Our patient was struggling to breathe. Dierdre knew she had to give several medications and fluids quickly.
She needed to start an IV. There was no safe place to pull over, and no time. Dierdre was an expert Paramedic with years of field experience. She was confident, but not arrogant -- a quiet professional.
I watched her open an alcohol swab and sterilize the spot on the patient's arm just over the vein. Dierdre and the driver communicated to find a patch of road with relatively few bumps and turns.
Then, at just the right moment, in one fluid motion, Dierdre inserted the razor-sharp IV needle into the patient's arm, pulled it out leaving the flexible catheter in place, secured it with tape, and started flowing the life-saving IV fluid and meds she had prepared.
The whole process took about 10 seconds.
In a moving ambulance.
On back country roads.
That's what Tacit Skill looks like.
~ Jake Mazulewicz, Ph.D.