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Smart or Dumb?

According to experts in an emerging field called the Science of Choice, everyone can learn to make higher quality decisions. In fact, smart people make dumb decisions with alarming regularity. Or, they speak using vague verbs that further confuse the situation. What are the differences between smart or dumb?

First, understand the primary cause of poor individual decisions—overconfidence. Then realize that one of the reasons groups make higher quality decisions than the smartest person in the group is the ability to force participants to think outside of their normal comfort zone. Vague verbs will also get in the way, as discussed below.

Objective or Subjective?

Natural decision making for individuals relies on an “inside view”. Not surprisingly, we call our meeting participants “subject matter experts” because their inside view is also known as the subjective view. For example, two people eating from the same bowl of chili may arrive at different conclusions. One may find the chili excessively ‘hot” (as in spicy) and the other, not. Both are correct from their subjective points of view, so how do we as facilitators “objectify” their assessment?

Participants, especially when focused on specific situations, tend to use information that is cheap; ie, costs little in terms of time to access and out of pocket costs. They make their judgments and predictions based on a narrow set of inputs. Perhaps, for example, there was only one habanero pepper in the chili, and it ended up in only one of the bowls. Participants do not consider the full range of possibilities. Frequently in planning modes, people paint a “too optimistic” view of the future, largely due to overconfidence.

Overconfidence is central to the inside view and leads to at least two illusions that can dramatically lower the quality of decisions:

Smart People Make Dumb Decisions

Sometimes Smart People Make Dumb Decisions

  1. Illusion of Control
  2. Illusion of Superiority

1. Illusion of Control

People behave as if chance events are subject to their influence. Simply stated, people who believe that they have some control over the situation perceive their “odds of success” are higher, even when they are not. Numerous studies have proven the illusion of control, typically using random chance, such as the throw of the dice. Money managers, for example, behave as if they can beat the market when, in fact, very few outperform the major indices.

2. Illusion of Superiority

Most people consider themselves ‘above average’ drivers. Likewise, most professionals place themselves in the top half of performers. Clearly, these judgments are absurd, as at least half of all drivers would be considered ‘below average.’ Likewise for professionals, as people maintain an unrealistically positive view of themselves, not everyone can be above average. In fact, according to one large study, more than 80 percent of those surveyed considered themselves above average. Remarkably, and scary too, the least-capable people often have the largest gaps between their perception and reality. Those in the bottom quartile of various studies dramatically overstate their abilities, and nearly everyone tends to dismiss their shortcomings as inconsequential.

What is the Solution?

Various researchers have discovered that building consensus provides the best way to overcome individual biases. When building consensus, an outside view is brought into the decision-making process that improves the quality of individual decisions. Here is a methodological approach for facilitators:

  1. Find a Surrogate (Diverge):

    Ask the group to identify similar situations, comparable industries, significant competitors, or even stir up the group by adding participants with competing points of view.

  2. Assess the Distribution of Potential Outcomes (Analyze):

    Treat the decision as conditional rather than fixed. Under what conditions might Decision A be more appropriate than Decision B, etc?

  3. Base decisions, especially predictions, on ranges of outcomes and probabilities, and not a fixed set. (Converge):

    Consider scenario planning and build at least three decisions; perhaps the sunny, cloudy, and stormy perspectives. Study the outcomes including the most common, the average, and check the extremes to help influence a group to consider an ‘outside view.’

  4. Calibrate the decision or prediction as necessary (Document):

    Remember the biases discussed earlier, as it remains likely that the justification of views may remain too optimistic and overconfident. Interesting research within the National Football League (NFL) about counter-intuitive decisions such as going for it on fourth down, two point conversions, onside kicks and the like shows that coaches who are willing to break from tradition are more successful by generating more points and victories than those who play it safe. See Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder for further discussion that expounds on Chaos Theory.

Some discrete words, here focused on vague verbs, also lend themselves to being DUMB.

DUMB stands for Dull, Ubiquitous, Myopic, and Broad—in other words, vague. Because the terms below carry multiple meanings, participants interpret them based on their individual bias and perspective—the opposite of consensual understanding.

As you improve your meeting leadership skills, constantly endeavor to listen to yourself. We know about the importance of NOT NEVER EVER using the term “I” after the Introduction has been completed. After all, it is not about you, it is about them. It is OK to use the plural and integrative first person however, including ‘we’ and ‘us.’

Additionally, keep in mind the following should be directed at participants and do not represent actions that are owned by the facilitator. These terms are typically put in the form of a challenge, such as an action plan for the participants. Limit your choice of using the following words and note the supporting rationale:

15 Vague Verbs to Avoid

Avoid Vague, Abstract, and DUMB Verbs

Avoid Vague Verbs that are Abstract and DUMB

  1. Administer—Really? How are you going to do that?
  2. Assure—What is the action that provides the assurance?
  3. Consult—Here we have a contronym. Are you giving or receiving something?
  4. Develop—This requires an entire life cycle of discrete activities.
  5. Ensure—Given the many things we have no control over, how will you do this?
  6. Establish—An early process in most life cycles, requiring multiple steps or activities. What are they?
  7. Expedite—Simply substitute HOW are you going to do this?
  8. Follow-up—MG RUSH provides three tools for following up.  Each tool requires multiple activities to complete the step effectively.
  9. Implement—Another life cycle term that begs for clear detail.
  10. Investigate—A life cycle by itself that will require multiple activities.
  11. Manage—Probably the most abused of all terms (outside of consult). Twelve people will interpret what ‘manage’ means, a few dozen different ways.
  12. Monitor—Classic. Sounds good, but HOW are you going to do this?
  13. Observe—Face-to-face? Secondary information? Third-hand hearsay?
  14. Perform—Do you mean act? If so, what action will be taken?

We do not expect you to memorize these terms, so strive to integrate the logic. Verbs to avoid are typically vague because they are abstract. Participant-friendly terms are more active and tend towards the concrete. For example, it is easier to visualize someone “telling” someone else, rather than “collaborating.”

SMART or DUMB Criteria?

The intent here is to illustrate the difference between clear, or SMART (Specific, Measurable, Adjustable, Relevant, and Time-based) definitions and criteria contrasted with unclear or DUMB (ie, Dull, Ubiquitous, Myopic, and Broad) definitions and criteria.

An Unclear Business Definition
(Example of DUMB Customer ID)

“The ID of the customer”blank

A Clear Business Definition
(Example of SMART Customer ID)

“A twelve character code that uniquely identifies a customer for our business.  The code will be displayed on all customer shipments and invoices.  Customers and customer service representatives use this code to resolve shipping or invoicing issues.  Finance uses this code to track customer sales performance.  Marketing uses this code for determining customer segment and group performance.  Sales uses this code to identify products purchases by customer.”

The code consists of the following Characters:

  • One—either the letter “I” for customers internal to the company or the letter “E” for customers external to the company
  • Two—either the letter “U” for United States customers or the the letter “M” for multi-national customers without corporate headquarters in the United States
  • Three and Four—two letter state code for the United States, Canada, and Mexico or two letter country code for other countries
  • Five through Ten—system-generated numeric ID that is to unique to each customer
  • Eleven and Twelve—system generated numeric ID that is unique to each customer distribution center


Don’t ruin your career or reputation with bad meetings. Register for a class or forward this to someone who should. Taught by world-class instructors, MG RUSH  professional facilitation curriculum focuses on practice. Each student thoroughly practices and rehearses tools, methods, and approaches throughout the week. While some call this immersion, we call it the road to building impactful facilitation skills.

Our courses also provide an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from the Scrum Alliance, 40 PDUs from PMI, and 40 CDUs from IIBA, as well as 3.2 CEUs for other professions. (See individual class descriptions for details.)

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Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz, CSM, PSPO, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Facilitation Best Practices blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

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