Decision Trees: A Strategy for Excellence

The decisions that we make obviously lead to outcomes. Some are good, while others are not so good. Decision Tree software is designed to map out data and decision analysis .
The chart-like trees found in the software are great for transferring our tentative decisions and translating them to possible outcomes. Will those decisions deliver the desired effect? Will they stand the test of time? Is this a flourishing tree, a tree whose limbs and foliage stand out from the rest?
Since any form of success initially begins with good decisions, it’s helpful to better understand how our brains choose. Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide 1 explains the complicated decision-making process through storytelling. He starts off with an exciting tale of a pilot who is forced to make a split-second decision. One of his engines failed and if he doesn't instantly increase his speed, gain altitude, and steady the plane, a crash is inevitable. The uncertainty? The one remaining engine might not have enough fortitude to gain the necessary altitude. The pilot had an alternative. He could abruptly descend and hope the downward motion would help him gain enough speed to regain control. Either option might allow him to land the plane, but those same options could be catastrophic. How did he make a split second decision? What had to happen in his brain? Did he have a 50/50 chance of getting it right?

Thankfully, the aviator was in a simulator, so he and the "passengers" were in no real danger. The exercise, however, taught him something. His first choice was the right one. While he didn't have the luxury of time on his side, he still made the right decision, but how? He had only a split-second to save the day; to save lives.

Lehrer explains that whenever we decide our brains are flooded with emotion; emotion that influences our judgement. As I read this, I though, "How can this be a good thing? Shouldn’t we use our rational/logical brain to make decisions, especially critical ones?" The answer is yes, but we also use our emotional brain. The two, work hand in hand to help us with choices.

Neuroscience now understands how the emotional brain works in tandem with the more logical part of our brain. The Orbitofrontal Cortex (OFC) acts as a connection point linking our emotions to our logical brain. The end result translates into a verdict, a decision, made with both the emotional and logical brain. For example, if we are stimulated by an object, food or person, the OFC might process that experience as a favorable. The Orbitofrontal Cortex unites that stimulus to the limbic system, the part of our brain responsible for conscious thought. If the stimulant turns out to be unfavorable, the OFC sends us an"opt out" message. We make decisions, only after we receive the OFC’s input, not before, and our emotions play a key role.

In fact, the OFC is so critical that if it becomes damaged a person’s decision-making capability is largely compromised. The same decisions that are seemingly easy, become excruciatingly difficult. Understanding that both the rational and emotional brain are involved in our decisions explain why "instinct" or "gut" feelings play an important part in judgement and ultimately the end result.

What happens when we make a split-second decision? What if we choose incorrectly and crash the plane? Alternatively, what happens when we decide and we don't immediately reap the fruit of a good decision or understand the consequence of a bad one? Similar to the the plane scenario, we aren’t always going to know if we will crash or land safely. Sometimes we may need to keep flying around and wait for an outcome. Waiting for an outcome is hard enough, but delayed gratification is often worth the wait in long-term payoff. We just need the fuel of patience to get us through it.

We are surrounded by an environment that doesn't like to wait. We put energy into something or someone, and expect an immediate output; a return on our investment. That is only natural, but how do we manage our expectations when the return is not immediate?
I'll share a few examples. Michael Jordan, who is likely the greatest basketball player of all times wasn't always thought of that way. In fact, Jordan was cut from his varsity basketball team. Did he let this setback destroy him? No, it served as a motivator for his future decisions. It was a catalyst that very well set him on his path to greatest.

Delayed Gratification to Long-Term Pay Off: 6 Time NBA Champion, 5 Time NBA MVP, 4 Time NBA All Star

Michael Jordan began his career with rejection.

If you can't relate to that example, here's another, Jewel Kilcher, the famous singer, song writer, went from homeless to super-stardom. As a homeless person, she was forced to live in survival mode. She remained true to herself and her dreams all while having to live under extremely difficult circumstances. Jewel made tough decisions everyday and they paid off.

Perhaps both of these examples are a bit extreme showcasing a few people who made it big through sheer determination, hard work and an unstoppable belief in themselves. However, I would beg to differ. I believe we all have similar abilities. The groundwork for greatness requires us to tap into the root of ourselves and find our true identity. We can embrace and accept who we are and where we are in life, knowing that we will eventually land on the runway of desired outcomes and achieve our excellence.
How do we shape personal excellence? How do we build excellent teams? We make good decisions, realizing at times that they will not render the desired effect. When an outcome is less than favorable, we analyse what went wrong, edit, correct and move forward with plan B, C or D. We should not be afraid to experience failure for the sake of learning. We certainly shouldn't be afraid to decide. In the end, we build strong root systems that tap into the nutrients that feed us as well as others. In essence, we need to make decisions much like the trees thriving in the forest. Their self-sustaining nature is worth a review. Their paradigm seems to work.

The tree model uses photosynthesis as their magic. 2 Trees utilize energy from the sun, then add water to carbon dioxide and create oxygen. Interestingly, oxygen is an "extra" outcome, much like an added benefit. The purpose of photosynthesis is to provide the tree with its required nourishment. Photosynthesis, in many ways, is like our grocery shopping and meal preparation. You get what you need, use what you have, and create something spectacular.

Decision Trees: Take Root. Give Back.

Imagine the trees during a brainstorming session, desiring their spectacular outcome. They got together and laid out all available resources, considered their root system and forms of nutrients received from the earth. As they put together their master plan, their Decision Tree, they realized the consequences of too little sun energy, or too much or too little water. They evaluated their risks and ability to mitigate those risks. They also knew that while the process wasn't fool-proof, it was mostly self-sustaining. The trees benefited society by contributing oxygen to human and animal life. They recognized their many similarities and appreciated their differences. Some trees changed with the seasons while others stayed evergreen. Each tree contributed to the beauty of the forest and everyone was a team player. What might we learn from the trees' sustainable design?

Take Root and Give Back

Great decisions positively impact others.

Balance Self-Sufficiency with Teamwork

Self-sufficiency is key, but so is teamwork. A thriving forest relies on the use of current resources and nearby talent. Trees network and flourish because they tap into the sun's energy and use the local water supply.

Use What We Have, Keep an Open Mind, and Plan for the Unexpected

Be a good steward of current resources while maintaining a space for idea fluency, new processes, decisions and backup plans. Don't run out of the proverbial water because no one expected a drought. Develop backup plans.

We all make choices everyday. Decisions, split-second or not, are inevitable and excellent outcomes rarely happen overnight. Rather, decisions build one upon another. When we make decisions, we tap into both the logical and emotional brain segments. The sharing of those specialties and strengths aid in decision-making. If we are forced into a split second decision, it still might not be the right choice, but we can take solace knowing the we consulted both parts of our brain. It may have felt like sheer instinct, a mere gut feeling, but our Orbitofrontal Cortex was sending messages to our rational brain.

Should our decisions hit the pause button, making us wait for outcomes, remember we can fuel ourselves with patience. The runway of success is rarely paved overnight, just look to those who were rejected, but ultimately succeeded, and succeeded in a big way. Jordan and Jewel made decisions everyday and the best decision was to believe in themselves.

Lastly, let's look to the trees for inspiration and shape our decisions accordingly. Know yourself. Take root. Create a self-sustaining model. Use resources wisely. Tap into known talent and give back to society. Build a forest of excellence, one decision at a time.

1. Lehrer, Jonah, How We Decide, New York, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009

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