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Principles for Making Complex Decisions

Moonshot aims to generate promising and actionable ideas to improve theater companies’ recurring repertoire selection processes - among their most complex and consequential decisions. These ideas come from two primary sources: an understanding of each theater’s character, capacities and interests; and principles for improving decision making drawn from a review of a growing body of multi-disciplinary research in neuroscience, psychology, economics, linguistics, and other fields that explores how people and organizations make complex decisions and how the process of making those decisions can be improved. Here we share the highlights from that research, focusing on those ideas that strike us as most relevant and potentially useful to theater repertoire selection.


What’s been studied?


Research we reviewed analyzed complex decisions that have led to outcomes ranging from extraordinarily successful to utter disasters. Some of the research has been experimental, some naturalistic or ethnographic, and some statistical. Much of what we reviewed concerns how neuroscience and psychology understand the mind’s work on challenging problems, an evolving science.


Researchers have looked principally at making complex decisions in geopolitical affairs and business, as that is where research funding has focused. But, they consistently argue that there are principles and practices associated with better decision making that can be adapted and applied in other domains. Though Moonshot may be the first study of its kind, we are confident that the performing arts is among those domains for which these principles and practices readily apply.


Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow


Two distinct but interrelated cognitive systems are involved in all complex decision making. This idea was first developed by psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky. (Kahnemann later wrote the bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow and won a Nobel Prize in economics for this work.) Much of the research concerns the value and the limits of each cognitive system.


Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, Blink, popularized the perspectives of researchers, including psychologist Gary Klein, who studied the value and power of thinking fast, (aka the cognitive unconscious). This system is grounded in feelings, emotion, and physical sensation. It is enormously efficient, spontaneous, and virtually entirely unconscious. It is constantly active, processing the world around us and guiding our actions and daily life. It is what we often refer to as our “gut,” “instinct,” or “intuition.”


Value of Thinking Fast

Blink opens with a story about the Getty Museum’s purchase of a remarkable Greek statue. The museum’s curators were convinced of the statue’s authenticity by rigorous archeological and historical research and scientific testing. But when outside experts in Greek art were invited to view the piece, they instantly advised the museum to get its money back. The Getty had relied on scientific and rational analysis of the statue when it made its decision. The outside experts, relying on their sense of aesthetic authenticity, saw that something was just wrong with the piece. They could not immediately explain why, nor did they have scientific “proof,” but they knew it was a fake, and they were right. The story illustrates the two systems: Getty relied on slow thinking. The outside experts thought fast. Their “gut” was informed by their deep experience and expertise, but their evaluation of the statue did not engage deliberative, rational thinking and analysis. It was intuitive and unconscious.

Weakness of Thinking Fast

Each cognitive system cuts two ways. Despite its tremendous inherent value, the fast system is prone to errors that are extremely difficult to uncover and correct. The errors often stem from misconstruing unfamiliar experiences and from powerful biases built into the cognitive unconscious. It is the fast system that is implicated in the tragic decisions police officers and others too often make in the context of race.​

Value of Thinking Slow

Thinking slow - reason, logic, reflection, metacognition - enables us to consider consequences, compare alternatives, evaluate experience, and plan. Reason has been the basis for much of human progress. If the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis are overcome, the power of reason will deserve much of the credit. If they are not, it is likely that the cognitive unconscious will be deeply implicated in the failure.

Weakness of Thinking Slow

Reason may be a cognitive superpower, but it is also profoundly “bounded.” It certainly led the Getty Museum astray. It is prone to making errors because biases from the cognitive unconscious distort reason, and because there are always variables and influences that are simply unknown or unknowable. The power of reason has contributed enormously to the arrival of the Anthropocene epoch of global climate crisis. Logic is inclined to error when it is so “data driven” that the feelings, emotions, and sensations central to thinking fast and human relations are absent from decision making. Neurological and psychological research has clearly demonstrated that decision making in the absence of emotion and feeling is as flawed as decisions made in the absence of reason.

Artists think Fast and Slow

Both systems are deeply involved in art making: Artists rely heavily on gut, intuition, and feelings to inspire and motivate them, imagine and create work, and respond to the world. As artists well know, the best and most creative ideas often begin as feelings. And artists’ objectives virtually always include generating an emotional response from an audience. Feelings and intuition undoubtedly play a role in the development of a script by a playwright. And they shape the initial responses of theater leaders to a story, idea or script under consideration for production.

Artists also rely heavily on reason and analysis to test their imaginative ideas, identify and solve problems, refine the design or arc and sequencing of the work, and integrate details. Theater companies spend a great deal of intellectual energy interrogating stories, ideas, and scripts before making a commitment to moving ahead with development or production.

The Two Systems are not well integrated

Both thinking fast and thinking slow are important to good complex decision making. The challenge is to get them to work together as they are not well-integrated. Each has evolved over the 200,000 years of human history, almost all pre-modern, and human evolution has simply not caught up with the quicker pace of development in the modern world. Researchers consistently conclude that making better decisions requires an effort to tap the strengths and mitigate the flaws and weaknesses of each system.

The research suggests that complex decisions are best made through a deliberate and articulated process. We believe that process is best guided by three principles that we have distilled from the literature:

  1. Design the process to integrate thinking fast and thinking slow

    The process for making complex decisions should value both systems and recognize their limits. Theater leaders develop highly intuitive theater intelligence through years of experience, and the quick, emotional responses of the cognitive unconscious are vital tools for recognizing potential choices and pathways. Trust your gut. But a good process of decision making needs to systematically test the inclinations of the cognitive unconscious, counteract the “prevailing wisdom”, question “the way we’ve always done it” and other biases. Balance “gut” feelings with metacognitive reflection and critical thinking. Reason, logic and analysis can reveal the errors of the cognitive unconscious, anticipate and mitigate risks, and reap the rewards of choices. Thinking slow practices can also help discover options and choices that are not intuitively identified by the cognitive unconscious. At the same time, a good process values feelings and aesthetics and resists the reduction of repertoire decisions to an analytical calculus.
    Teams, in which multiple perspectives are represented, are generally more capable of constraining bias and recognizing unfamiliar opportunities. Document and map the process of decision making and design ways to engage diverse stakeholder perspectives. Examine and improve it over time.


  2. Center values and aspirations, make them explicit and conscious, and use them to guide decision making

    Values and aspirations illuminate core priorities. Theater companies’ values and aspirations include aesthetic, philosophical, moral, organizational, political, and financial dimensions. A good process makes them conscious, explicit, and central to identifying considerations to guide and inform decisions. They also point toward the success indicators that will be most meaningful to goal setting and the evaluation of decisions and their outcomes. An important element of Moonshot’s case study design was to identify theater companies’ values and aspirations early and to use them to prompt development of key considerations for repertoire choices and success indicators for productions. Values and aspirations develop over time. In this time of rapid change, regular review, confirmation and/or updating of values and aspirations will be needed and worthwhile.


  3. Make forecasting practices rigorous and routine.

    Improving complex decision making requires improving forecasts, so the process must take forecasting seriously We make forecasts all the time, usually informally and without thinking deeply or assessing our accuracy afterwards. Better forecasting means that challenges can be anticipated, strategies developed to overcome them, and more opportunities recognized and realized. The research shows that forecasting improves when forecasts, resulting decisions, and outcomes are routinely and regularly assessed. Theaters generally forecast audience interest in a particular project, and quantify forecasts of production expenses and anticipated box office revenue. They also forecast their capacity to mount the production artistically and organizationally. The research suggests that these more qualitative forecasts can also be quantified and evaluated against actual outcomes as part of a post mortem process. Quantifying a fuller range of theater variables can be done simply by assigning a numerical rating to confidence level regarding a production’s artistic, financial, and organizational prospects. Success indicators can also be numerically quantified and deployed as a useful tool for making and evaluating forecasts.

There is, of course, no way to eliminate the many risks - artistic, financial, and organizational - involved in theater production. But we are confident that a repertoire selection process that adheres to these three principles - integrate fast and slow thinking; center values; and incorporate rigorous forecasting and assessment practices - will result more consistently in decisions that lead to better outcomes.

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© 2023 Ensemble Consulting, Logo and Website created by Logan Jones

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