If you’re like us, you are over winter when the month of February rolls around. We, like much of America, look toward Groundhog Day to determine if we should anticipate six more weeks of snow or if we can expect to shed our winter layers a little sooner. Groundhog day also brings back fond memories of the classic Bill Murray movie of the same name where the main character relives the same day over and over for an undisclosed number of times. Some experts hypothesize that this pattern was repeated anywhere from eight to 1000 years. Although fun in nature, the film also fosters a deeper conversation about how humans do, or do not, learn from our mistakes. With this, people dive into thoughts around why humans may make the same mistakes over and over again.
The Science Behind Repeat Behaviors
Close friends of one of our Allovance leaders moved into a new house in a new city several years ago. The first time he went to their new place, he overshot their address and pulled into the neighbor’s driveway. Later, it happened again. Years later, it’s still happening! Outside of being slightly embarrassing, this is not a big deal. Life happens. But it does cause us to ask why he is still making the same mistake.
The answer is simple: Pattern development.
Science tells us that a critical part of the human experience is developing neural pathways. These pathways help people navigate the world on a daily basis. In this instance, our leader had developed a neural pathway that told him to “do what he had always done”. This was the default. Although the mistake was obvious, it didn’t stop him from reaching his end goal: getting to his friend’s house. Because the consequence was minimal, the need to learn a new pathway was diminished.
Change isn’t hard simply because someone is being ‘difficult’ or ‘stubborn.’
The idea that change is hard isn’t simply due to the notion that a person is ‘difficult’ or ‘stubborn’. Research shows that changing an established pathway and learning a new one can often feel more difficult than learning something new altogether. It is more comfortable to do the same thing, albeit it comes with mistakes, than experiencing the discomfort of change for a small win. Yet, the greater the negative impact – such as remaining in an abusive relationship – the more harmful this phenomenon can be.
The Impact of Pattern Development on Strategic Decisions
This phenomenon applies to the decision-making process within organizations as well. Leaders who fall victim to the pattern development phenomenon are the “we don’t do it like this” or the “we have always done it this way” leaders. The ones who keep doing it the same way yet expect different results. The result is a fixation on failing business strategies.
Many articles advise to “slow down the decision” the next time around to counteract the pattern development phenomenon. They believe that if one slows down, one is afforded the opportunity to make a better decision. While the intent is to help leaders make a better decision, leaders need to do more than slow down. In fact, when leaders only focus on slowing down, they may make the same or worse decisions on the account that they are using weaker information in their process. According to Roozbeh Kiani, an assistant professor at New York University’s Center for Neural Science, there is a good reason for this.
“The reason for the reliance on worse information might be that ‘the brain gets involved in a quest to understand why the error took place,’ Kiani said. It tries to figure out, why did this error happen? Did something about the world change? Is there something wrong with me? “The negative feedback triggers a cascade of computations,” Kiani said, which distract from the decision at hand.”
Modified Focus Leads to Unexpected Results
Information overload, stress, decision fatigue, and other such factors break down our ability to process higher quality information. When this happens, we instead rely upon, and therefore reinforce, mistake pathways in the brain so that we make the same mistake we did last time. Counteracting this is as simple as taking a break and diverting your attention.
Research conducted by Kelly Haws, associate professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University, indicates that focusing on a past mistake with a goal of not repeating said mistake may actually increase the likelihood of repeating that mistake. This is consistent with other studies on a phenomenon called “target fixation”.
Target fixation occurs when an individual becomes so myopically-focused on one element that they exclude other factors to their potential detriment. This can be seen in driving where one swerves to avoid hitting a deer and heads toward a tree. Those who focus on the tree are more likely to hit it. On the other hand, those who focus on the space next to the tree are less likely to hit the tree. Similarly, if one focuses on what they did wrong last time, they often inadvertently end up repeating the same mistake or making a different mistake.
“…focusing on a past mistake with a goal of not repeating said mistake may actually increase the likelihood of repeating that mistake”
Bill Murray’s character goes through whole cycles of essentially similar mistakes when trying to win the heart of his coworker. His success comes when he stops focusing on trying to “win” her and starts focusing on improving himself to become someone worthy of her. In similar fashion, we can all use this February to not only acknowledge the mistakes we repeat and areas where we have gone off course in the past, but to also move forward towards better strategic decisions by aiming for where we want to be.
Adopt a Structured, Repeatable Process
Changing any behavior or habit requires both acknowledging there is a flaw in the current pattern and committing to consistent, incremental, change. A bad habit can only be corrected by replacing the habit – or pattern – with a better one. Developing and adopting a consistent repeatable process that replaces more ad hoc driven systems is one way an organization can create new norms around how its leaders make decisions.
Our proprietary software and decision-making model reduces that pain that comes with decision-making by doing just that. With our repeatable five-step process, also known as the Allovance method, incorporated into our software, leaders can adopt and use a process in a consistent manner with less guess work than doing it on their own. Additionally, a certified Decision Coach can help your team stay on track and break old, inefficient, ineffective ways of allocating and advancing resources and projects.
Bill Murray looked to the residents of Punxsutawney to help him learn how to become a better version of himself. Who will you look to? Who will be your coach to guide you to a more fit organization? (Hint: This is where you say, “Allovance”). No matter who you choose to be your companion on the journey to make better decisions and not repeat old mistakes remember; the change needs to be structured, consistent, and repeatable.