Our students need to understand that haste can make waste

Professor Martin Binks, former dean of Nottingham University Business School and Professor of Entrepreneurial Development at its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The ability to make decisions quickly is generally considered a strength, and in many cases this is perfectly understandable. There are undoubtedly times when a capacity to think both swiftly and decisively is highly desirable. If we were passengers in a car seconds from a head-on impact, for example, we would be less than impressed if the driver were to take an eternity to contemplate the relative merits of veering left or right.

There are, though, plenty of instances where the line between necessary rapidity and needless haste is overstepped. Here speed is neither of the essence nor likely to prove of long-term benefit. All too frequently the outcome is a wealth of “what ifs” and a bout of painful reflection on what might have been.

Such an unhappy trajectory tends to stem from a decision-making methodology firmly rooted in the belief that choices are invariably derived from a set of fully formed options. Applying this philosophy, “what if” is merely the stuff of the future: the present belongs entirely to “what is”.

This mindset is widespread both in the sphere of business, where quick thinking is too routinely praised, and in business schools, where quick thinking is too often encouraged among students. What is habitually overlooked is that such a false premise serves as a launchpad for a rush to judgment.

Tellingly, we usually know – at least deep down – that lazily defaulting to the nearest plausible option may well turn out to be an inadequate course of action. We are distantly aware that some questions demand more thought. And yet we plough on regardless, ready to soak up the plaudits for our purposefulness. This makes us guilty of something akin to conscious irresponsibility.

It seems reasonable to suggest that conscious irresponsibility is not an attribute we would like our students to take into the wider world, especially when many of the issues they may one day play a part in helping to tackle are likely to be of the most far-reaching significance. Problems such as population growth, resource depletion, pollution and other genuinely global concerns oblige us to deliver rather more than a knee-jerk reaction founded on the conviction that dispatch is the supreme measure of talent.

What we need to inculcate in our students, then, is a determination to deal with “what ifs” before rather than after the event. We have to make them appreciate the difference between the persuasive prescience of “What if we were to do this?” and the powerless retrospect of “What if we had done this?”; between healthy curiosity and helpless regret; between the very real advantages of foresight and the alleged wonders of hindsight.

The first step is to encourage them to explore the causes and components of any problem before even beginning to contemplate potential solutions. Particularly when the issue at hand is complex, deconstruction is essential to the subsequent creation of creative responses and the development of a full range of possible answers to the question being posed.

Thereafter the objective should be to unleash a veritable glut of ideas. These might be – and, indeed, very probably will be – good, bad, innovative, stupid, inspired, mediocre, conservative and radical. As double Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling remarked: “If you want to have good ideas you must have many ideas. Most of them will be wrong, and what you have to learn is which ones to throw away.” It is only by producing a flood of ideas and assessing the merits of each that we can hope for the very best to emerge from the pack.

It is important to recognise, too, that anyone can contribute to this process. As I have stressed many times previously, we should not perpetuate the myth that creative problem-solving is the exclusive domain of “geniuses” or “visionaries”. Challenging orthodoxy, making connections and applying imagination require us only to think – and we are all eminently capable of that, at least from time to time.

I am, of course, familiar with the criticisms customarily levelled at any attempt to make decision-making a more comprehensive, rigorous, ingenious and, by extension, drawn-out activity. The most common complaint is that the return on investment is unpredictable and that a sizeable amount of time, energy and money might be expended on ideas that, regardless of a newfound determination to pre-empt each and every “what if”, ultimately come to nought.

I acknowledge this argument, but I do not accept it. It is typical of the propensity to relegate long-term benefits to the background and focus instead on short-term gains. True waste lies not in pursuing novel concepts that might lead to dead ends but in deterring novel concepts in the first place.

There is a lot at stake here, and we should bear that in mind whenever we are tempted to believe we can simply pluck successful ideas from a ready-made list. The fact is that the finest ideas are not chosen: they are conceived. Trying to select a winner from a neat rundown of available options is no better than trying to select a winner in a horse race; and that, lest we forget, is nothing more than gambling.