The 4 villains of decision making

 In Decision-making, Insights, Realizer Blog, Speaking

In my career in marketing strategy, I’ve seen some crazy decisions get made. Particularly when it comes to picking creative ideas. How do ads like this get chosen above other options in a creative meeting?

"The Turkey" - how do bad ads get picked?

“The Turkey” – how do bad ads get picked?

The 4 villains of decision making

I identified four issues with picking good ideas, and I have picked four villains of decision making to represent each of them.

1. Gut feel can be a problem

Kim Jong Il made lots of crazy gut feel decisions

Kim Jong Il made lots of crazy gut feel decisions

Villain 1 is Kim Jong Il who made a lot of gut feel decisions. In 2006 he  heard of a German who bred giant rabbits. So he decides that breeding them will solve the national food crisis. He imports 12 of them. But when it gets to his birthday he can’t wait and he eats them all at a banquet.

When I hear a good idea, the hairs on the back of my neck raise. The problem with this gut feel is that most people try and hide it, and they come up with some supposedly rational reasons for their completely emotional decisions.

2. Someone is playing the devil’s advocate

The Devil's advocate

The Devil’s advocate

Villain number 2 is the Devil’s Advocate, a role designed by the pope in 1587 to review applications for saints, and find all the bad things that person had done. Pope John Paul II did away with this office, and the amount of people being sainted shot up 1000%.

The problem with the devils advocate is that the notion of advocacy means we deliberately take a position for or against an idea, and we dig our heels in. A much better approach to making decisions is “collective inquiry” where we all look for the best decision together.

3. Solving the wrong problem

Chairman Mao solved the wrong problem

Chairman Mao solved the wrong problem

Villain 3 is Chairman Mao who was guilty of solving the wrong problem. He increased steel production by getting all the farms to build backyard steel furnaces. They turned out huge quantities of poor quality metal while 30 million farmers starved to death.

It’s amazing how often marketers effectively rearrange the deckchairs on the titanic, such as when Kodak released the advantix camera to tackle the digital revolution. It had a digital preview screen, but still used film which you needed to take to a store to process.

4. Data can only take you so far

Computer Says No

Computer Says No

Villain number 4 is Carol Beer of “Computer Says No” fame. Relying on data alone is a losing strategy for picking great ideas. Whether that’s link tests, market research, clickstream data or customer data, it can only take you so far.

For example, many people don’t know that for the launch of New Coke in 1985 they had done extensive market research and taste tests which showed consumers overwhelmingly preferred the new flavour. The problem was that they ignored a small but vocal minority in the focus groups who had said don’t mess with my coke. When the product launched it was this minority which made all the noise which led to Coke quickly abandoning the new recipe.

Do you recognise any of these characters from your work? If so, what can you about it?

The answer is that the leaders need to set out a course for decision-making. Leaders should control the process, but not the ideas.

First make sure you’re solving the right problem. Always have a single core objective and refer back to it constantly. In all the creative meetings I’ve ever been in, I’ve hardly ever seen anyone refer back to the brief.

Gut feel should be recognised and celebrated, not hidden and post rationalised. Ask everyone to share their initial gut feel, with no reasons. Get people to write it down so they’re not influenced by the people who have spoken before them.

To avoid stuff ups like #susanalbumparty, the team needs to plan for the best and worst case scenarios. There is a role for the devil’s advocate at specific times in the process, and everyone should take this role on together.

People want their voice to be heard, but they want the leader to make the decision. It’s surprising how bad we are at listening, especially as we get more senior. It’s surprising how often it’s unclear who’s making the final decision. So, listen well and decide clearly.

Do something – or be trapped in a world of bad decisions


If presenting your creative ideas feels like going to a meeting with Jabba the Hut then you need to do something. Like Han Solo didn’t want to spend the rest of his days trapped in carbonite in Jabba’s trophy cabinet, you shouldn’t be trapped in a world of bad decisions and evil tyrants.

Posted by Rob Pyne based on my 5 minute talk given at #ignitesydney