The Scottish Question

by Sarah Thrift on August 17, 2014

On September 18, Scotland will decide whether to become an independent country.

Regardless of the outcome, Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister has played a blinding strategy – and for all of us interested in strategy there are some interesting lessons to draw.

Half Scot Half brit flag

Alex Salmond has made himself and his party the master of the question, the timing of the question and the franchise. All of these he has chosen to maximise the chances of Scotland voting for independence. For example, Salmond picked September 2014 for the vote, after the Commonwealth Games were held in Glasgow and Scotland would have an extra bounce of self-confidence. Or take the franchise which has been extended to include 16 and 17 year olds (great!), who are also expected to on average be more in favor of independence.

Of particular interest is the question itself. For those of you who have attended my courses or who have read the first part of my book – which has been pre-released for free download you will know that I am very passionate about making sure we ask the right question and do so in the clearest possible way.

The Scottish question is extremely clear and simple: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

Scottish ballot

Compare this to the question asked of Quebec in their referendum on independence in 1995:“Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?” Quite a mouthful.

A second key component of getting to a good question is to make sure that it is not leading, nor making any implicit assumptions.

Interestingly, originally the Scottish government wanted the question to read “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”. The Electoral Commission however found that the “Do you agree” preface made it a leading question, which would be more likely to garner a positive response. Personally, I still think that the fact I have to disagree with the statement of the present question gives a slight advantage – based our a natural inclination to want to agree rather than disagree.

A third feature of this question is its yes/no response. This is in contrast to a strategic question, where the questions should not be answerable with yes/no. In the case of a vote however, a yes/no question is precisely what is required.

Here again Alex Salmond has used the fact that most of us would much rather say “yes” than “no” to a question to the advantage of the campaign for an indpendent Scotland. This automatically makes the opposing camp the “naysayers”.

It remains to be seen if these strategic advantages will be enough for Alex Salmond to secure the “yes” he so desperately wants. But from a strategic perspective, hats off to him for playing shrewdly.


Honing your Decision-Making Skills

by Sarah Thrift on August 12, 2013


I have just been reading the new book by Chip and Dan Heath: “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work”. It is a fascinating read, with a review of “villains” of decision-making, and a process to avoid them.

The authors identify four villains of decision-making:

  1. Narrow framing makes us miss options
  2. We gather self-serving information
  3. Short-term emotions (which will fade) dictate our choices
  4. We are overconfident about how the future will unfold (having too much faith in our predictions)

To make better decisions, they recommend the WRAP process:

  • Widen Your Options
  • Reality-Test Your Assumptions
  • Attain Distance Before Deciding
  • Prepare to Be Wrong

The bulk of the book talks you through the WRAP process, with plenty of juicy anecdotes to illustrate villains and process at work.

One of the most provoking things for me was thinking about villain 3, the impact of short-term emotions on our ability to make sound decisions.

George Loewenstein and Jennifer S. Lerner in their paper “The Role of Affect in Decision-Making” divide emotions during decision-making into two types:

  • those anticipating future emotions i.e. expectations of how the person will feel once gains or losses associated with that decision are experienced; and
  • those immediately experienced while deliberating and deciding. These may be connected to the decision at hand, to the current environment, or the dispositional affect of the person.

This leads me in two directions. The first is how much can we master ourselves to be aware of our emotional state? And how much of our emotional state is below the level of our conscious awareness and/or mastery?

Mastering ourselves, while very desirable, is unfortunately pretty challenging. As Leonardo Da Vinci said, “One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.”

Let’s not lose hope here – but for most of us, we shouldn’t pin all our hopes on this either.

As for the second direction: there are lots of practical tips for mitigating the role of our emotions in decision-making, for instance:

  • Sleep on it: Yes, we all know this one, but do we really do it? Very few decisions have to be taken on the spot, yet so often we can act like urgent and immediate action is required.
  • 10-10-10: Use Suzy Welch’s 3 questions to create distance and perspective (see March 2013 for more details):How will I feel about this decision 10 minutes from now?
    How will I feel about it 10 months from now?
    How about 10 years from now?
  • Imagine you were advising your best friend: what would you tell him/her to do in this situation?

No rocket science here, but simple questions and tips to help us detach from our emotions and achieve the clarity we need for good decision-making.


Decision-Making Traps

by Sarah Thrift on July 12, 2013

Lost and with a Decision to Make

“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”
Leonardo Da Vinci

The 1998 article by John S. Hammond, Ralph L. Keeney, and Howard Raiffa on the “The Hidden Traps in Decision Making” (reprited in HBR in 2006) continues to be a really good reminder for me of the subconscious things we do in making decisions – the way we convince ourselves we are right, bias evidence and seek opinions accordingly.

Hammond, Keeney, and Raiffa refer to specific traps of decision-making including:

  1. The Anchoring Trap: When considering a decision, the mind gives disproportionate weight to the first information it receives and anchors there e.g. previous sales volumes as a predictor for the future.
  2. The Status-Quo Trap: a strong bias toward alternatives that perpetuate the status quo. In business, where sins of commission (doing something) tend to be punished much more severely than sins of omission (doing nothing), the status quo holds a particularly strong attraction.
  3. The Sunk-Cost Trap: Make choices in a way that justifies past choices, even when the past choices no longer seem valid. Why can’t people free themselves from past decisions? Frequently, it’s because they are unwilling, consciously or not, to admit to a mistake.
  4. The Confirming-Evidence Trap: The confirming-evidence bias not only affects where we go to collect evidence but also how we interpret the evidence we do receive, leading us to give too much weight to supporting information and too little to conflicting information.

Which got me thinking…

How often do we convince ourselves that we’re gathering information when we’re actually fishing for support?
How often do we dismiss contrarian views, rather that ask, “what would need to be the case for this to be true?”
How often does our fear subsconsciously prevent us from stepping out of the past and the status quo?

I know for myself that the answer to each of those questions is: Much more often than I’d really like to admit. Which means I’ll be keeping my checklist of questions at the front of my mind going forward.


10-10-10 Thinking

by Sarah Thrift June 12, 2013 Decision-making

Some decisions are really challenging. We may have done the groundwork, we may have thought long and hard, we may »» Read the full article