Are you answering the right questions: Brexit and a key lesson when making business decisions

Regardless of your stance in the Brexit debate, there is one issue that is quite clear: how many people actually responded to the question above? Based on the 6 week campaign members of the British public were supposed to assess the merits of the European Council, the Council of Ministers, The European Parliament (including our UK elected members), funding arrangements and present trade agreements. Then having absorbed this information, weighing up pros and cons, decide to leave as a member or remain as a member.

Clearly this did not happen. The debate centered on immigrants, economic destruction, boarder controls and funding of the NHS (or not as the case may be). In his excellent book Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast & Slow) describes what may have happened assubstitution. When faced with difficult questions we can't answer, or don't have enough information to answer we substitute the difficult question with one we can answer. For example 'how happy are you with your life these days?' becomes 'What is my mood right now?' (2011:98) As Kahneman points out 'A judgement that is based on substitution will inevitably be biased in predictable ways'(2011:101). So when faced with the difficulty of assessing EU membership it becomes easier to answer questions such as: How do I feel about immigrants? Can we save the NHS? Is England better at making its own laws? These questions evoke an emotional response. But actuallysubstitution has subtly entered the decision making process.

From a business perspective how often has someone posed a difficult question - what is our long term strategy? Why is our culture impacting on our performance? or what new technology can disrupt our market? However, these questions may be substituted for easier ones: What is our quarterly objective? How do we get rid of a difficult person? or how much will it cost to up-grade our present technology? For those answering these questions a feel good moment can happen because an answer has been found. The difficult question gets lost in the activity that then follows.

I have seen this happen twice recently, once in a meeting with a senior leadership group who were looking at developing a marketing strategy: the actual question was 'what communication channels will increase revenue?', but the conversation quickly turned to 'how do we improve our existing communication messaging?'and I had to steer the conversation back to the original question. Likewise, whilst facilitating a meeting with Local Authorities the question I posed was 'what needs to happen to improve your services?' however, one table (6 different service managers) then listed all the services that they presently offer. I had to remind them what the question was -as they had substituted the question into a more familiar response of listing their present service offer.

The important point is that substitution creeps into decision making and often gets missed as it produces a feel good answer. In the Brexit case substitution was clearly at work for some as according to Google the most searched term shortly after the vote was 'what is the EU?' How often does substitution happen in your business meetings?


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