“Blink” and Business School

On July 31, 2009, in Business School, by Jeremy C Wilson

I just finished Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, a book that draws psychology research to discuss the ways people make decisions. I think the topic is highly relevant to b-school students, since graduates spend their careers as managers and leaders who make important business decisions.

“Blink” is a book about the first two seconds, the instant conclusions that we reach about things that sometimes are accurate and occasionally far better than analysis. Gladwell contrasts these “blink” decisions with the longer decision-making process, where one observes the world, takes in information, analyzes the data, considers biases, formulates opinions, and then makes decisions.

Gladwell says that “we live in a society dedicated to the idea that we’re always better off gathering as much information and spending as much time as possible in deliberation,” but he contests that this is not always true and provides concrete examples to back that up.

Reading Blink as a pre-MBA student, I not only saw truth in Gladwell’s theory, but I also saw the value that this framework also has in business, where decisions often tend to be too long and drawn out. I’ll discuss a few examples that came to mind as relevant to MBAs:

Admissions
If you’re an admissions officer and you’re judging the caliber of a b-school applicant, how much do you analyze the candidates grades, standardized test scores and company history, and how much do you trust your quick interpretations about their leadership potential, motivation, and promise in the classroom. These latter traits are often picked up right away in an application.

Academics
If you’re a professor quickly assessing a student, how much do you analyze past grades and previous test scores and how much do you consider the influence the student has in the classroom and your snap judgments about their ability? As a seasonsed professor you should be able to asses these latter characteristics quickly, right?

Company Interviews
If you’re an industry interviewer screening candidates at b-school, how much do you look for someone with industry expertise and quantifiable success over their pre-MBA career versus a career changer who you can immediately tell is motivated to learn and has the leadership potential to do well.

Consulting Interviews
If you’re a consulting recruiter looking to hire MBA candidates, how much do you analyze GMAT scres, finance and strategy courses, and the case study performance and how much do you trust your snap judgment about their client presence, charisma, and conversational intelligence, which happens in just a 30-minute interview.

Entrepreneurship
If you’re an entrepreneur, how much do you analyze the external marketplace using analysis and your 4Ps framework. Alternatively how much do you trust your instincts about consumers and your ability to sell? You usually know the answers to the latter issues right away.

Venture Capital
If you’re a VC firm looking to invest capital, how much do you analyze financial statements versus trusting your instinct about a promising product and a strong management team, which are often quickly apparent.

Performance Review
Finally, as an HR manager or line manager charged with rating, promoting, or compensating employees, how many days/weeks do you analyze performance metrics (i.e. HR actually does this) and how much do you consider determination, leadership skills, or potential to succeed in an organization. HR folks usually know these employee criticality levels right away.

Conclusion
Overall, I think I agree with Gladwell’s point, that the very best decision-makers, (in my case…business decision makers) are the ones who understand how to use both processes. While applying to business school, it is definitely important to allow admissions officers to use both types of decision making processes. Admissions will definitely make snap judgments about your writing style, leadership roles, and your pre-MBA work experience, so your must write your application with the big picture in mind, focus on the first two sentences of your essays, and ensure that recommenders quickly convey their points to keep admissions interested at a high level. At the same time, admissions also wants to see results, so it’s important to provide a certain level of detail in your essays and on your resume. It’s a tough balance that takes a lot of time and lots of revisions to optimize.

During school, students will have the opportunity to grow in both domains, taking both experiential and leadership classes as well as quantitative and analytical classes. The onus is on us students to determine the mix of classes we want. I personally hope to put a lot of time into experiential and leadership classes, but also know that there is a lot of value in the others as well. Rather than over analyze my schedule and class options ahead of time, I’ll probably make quick (i.e. “Blink’) decisions along the way based on what makes sense at the time.

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