Tips For Effective ‘Decision Making’ In Business -Skills and Techniques from ‘Design-Thinking’ Process

In 1983, William Smithburg, CEO of Quaker acquired Gatorade for $220 million. It was touted as an impulsive purchase. Quaker grew the ‘Gatorade’ brand value to $3 billion. In 1994, Smithsburg bought another beverage brand, Snapple, for $1.8 billion. Due to Gatorade’s grand success, none of the board members opposed or protested against this acquisition. Smithburg acquired Snapple because of his vivid memories of Gatorade’s success and thought they could succeed with Quaker’s marketing and management skills. Unfortunately, Snapple acquisition was a colossal failure and was sold off to Triarc Corporation for $300 million. Jurgen Schrempp, CEO of Daimler-Benz, led the merger of Chrysler and Daimler against stiff opposition. Nine years later, Daimler was forced to give Chrysler away. Both the CEOs were experienced, highly qualified for the jobs, and yet their decisions had let their businesses down.

To move forward in business, all of us need to make decisions — Be it an overhaul of company’s pricing structure, substantial investment in a manufacturing site, global or local manufacturing, Outsourcing or in-house, type of value proposition for the product etc.. — Bad decisions can create irreversible damages.

What tips can ‘Design-Thinking’ process provide?


“Sometimes the fault lies not in the decision-making process but rather in the mind of decision maker” -John S. Hammond

HEURISTICS -As ‘working memory’ is very limited, our rational(conscious) mind consumes a lot of energy in performing cognitive tasks and thus imparting a feeling of fatigue within us. To counter this, the human mind has evolved over aeons to automate a lot of behaviours and use a lot of mental shortcuts as much as possible, in responding to various scenarios. These mental shortcuts are called ‘Heuristics’. Decision-making is an inherently complex process that involves a significant amount of cognitive effort. In other words, our ‘mind system’ is naturally against rational decisions. While making decisions, our subconscious mind tries to use ‘heuristics’ wherever possible, without we being aware of.

How to overcome those hidden biases and unknown mental shortcuts? What could we learn from the design-thinking process?


To understand other people’s feelings and emotion, automatic and conscious actions, a designer should know how to read and understand his own feelings, automatic reactions, conscious actions, motivations under various circumstances. Without this knowledge, it would be impossible for anyone to understand the feelings, emotions, behavioural variations of others.

To be and feel like somebody else, first you need to be in your own shoes and feel yourself —Ask questions — Who am I? What do I want? What do I not want? Why do I want that? What are my motivations? Why it motivates me? What makes me happy, sad? Why those things make me feel sad or happy? What makes me believe in myself? Why it makes me believe? What makes me be depressed and despair? Why do I feel like that? Why do I like certain things? What are those factors that made me like a certain thing or situation? Why do I like certain people? What factors played a role in liking him or her? Why did I buy that? How I react to certain situations?

Be aware of the situations where you feel happy, sad, comfortable or uncomfortable and recognise the reasons behind the same. — It is important to note there is always more than one reason behind every action and behaviour of yours. You need to think deeper to unearth those reasons.

Body-Language — In design research, when we observe users, we focus on their body language, facial expressions — A person would say that he was happy with the job, but his body language would show a tinge of sadness. Similarly, under stressful, emotionally turbulent situations our own body language, facial expressions change and would not be under our control — You need to slow down, observe and self-reflect at this time. Also, when you are excited or happy, you need to slow down, observe and self-reflect.

Do you feel like slapping somebody or use cuss words? — slow down, reflect, understand the feeling, thoughts you have at that particular instant. Why do you feel like that? As mentioned earlier, there is always more than one reason behind your every action. Understand and list down all the reasons. Under emotional stress, our minds move fast — our body language is of rapid movements -Observing your own body language would help.

Understanding yourself would help you to uncover your own biases, beliefs and prejudices, which would help you to involve your conscious mind in the decision-making process.


Similarly, every business leader should have a thorough understanding of their consumers. He or she has to continually gather information about users. The more they live like a consumer, the better the decision would be.

Sam Walton -By 1960s, Sam Walton had fifteen variety stores and he was doing reasonably well. Even then, he kept on visiting the retail stores in nearby towns, observed customers for hours, gathered as much as information from the customers, supervisors, workers regarding purchasing trends, new retail trends, retail locations, customer behaviours, warehousing, accounting, logistics etc… His consumer behaviour research clearly showed him that the ‘Variety Stores’ business was on the wane and the future appeared to be headed towards ‘discounting stores’. He saw how some larger stores were doing revenues of more than $2 million from each store compared to $1.4 million from Sam’s 15 stores. He then visited many discounting stores all around the country and studied the concept in-depth. Based on the research, he opened his first Wal-mart store in the early 1960s and slowly closed down his ‘Variety Stores’.

Howard Schultz -Starbucks, in its initial years, was selling only roasted whole-coffee beans to authentic coffee lovers, who had to brew their own coffee in their homes. In the 1980s, Howard Schultz, then marketing manager, visited Milan, Italy. He saw that every street in that city had a little espresso bar. He visited many stores and studied them. He saw that the Barista working behind the counter, greeted every customer cheerfully and many of them by their names. After taking the order, that guy moved gracefully, grinding coffee beans, pulling shots of espresso, and steaming milk, and at the same time, he was conversing happily with his customers. The Baristas talked, laughed and enjoyed the moment with their customers. Customers too enjoyed. Howard could see that the Baristas had established personal relationships with their customers.

Howard also observed that there was a wonderful camaraderie between the customers even though they didn’t know each other well except in the context of that coffee bar.

Howard continued to observe more coffee bars. He listened to the type of music being played. He saw that the coffee bar was visited by a different crowd at various timings. In the morning, the Coffee bar was frequented by typical office goers. In the early afternoon, mothers with children and retired folks lingered around. In the evenings, it was a neighbourhood’s gathering place.

Howard realized that these places offered comfort, community and a sense of extended family to the customers. Italians considered coffee shop as an extension of their porch, an extension of their home-A home away from home.

Based on those observations, Howard realised that the Starbuck’s connection to the people who loved coffee did not have to take place only in their homes, where they ground and brewed whole-bean coffee. For sustainable growth, the connection had to happen in the Starbucks’ stores.

“Starbucks had been treating coffee as produce, something to be bagged and sent home like groceries. It had stayed one big step away from the heart and soul of what coffee has meant throughout the centuries”-Howard Schultz.

Howard decided that the way forward for Starbucks was to sell an experience in its stores similar to Italian coffee bars and ‘espresso’ had to be at the heart and soul of the coffee experience. This decision transformed the ‘Starbucks’. The in-depth observational research helped him.

Earvin Magic Johnson -The target segment of all Earvin Magic Johnson’s businesses was African Americans and Latino Americans. The one major reason for his success was his strong knowledge of his customers. He was aware of their behaviour, habitual actions, likes, dislikes, desires and needs. How did Johnson develop this knowledge? Johnson lived among the community members. He was one among them. He grew among them. He had observed them closely. He went with them to many places. He constantly spoke to them and had spent time with them. He stayed in touch with them. This way, Johnson had gathered a whole lot of information about his consumers which helped him to introduce many businesses that were highly successful.

Gathering relevant information, particularly about your potential or present customers would help you to make influential decisions and transform your business.


The research shows that the way the problem is framed can profoundly impact the solution we choose. The hidden biases play a critical role in framing the problem. The result is that most of the time we would be solving the wrong problem. Link for one of the examples is provided below

A designer, being aware of the hidden biases, is required to reframe the problem in multiple ways and discuss with his team, before finalising the direction.

Gordon Murray was working at Brabham as a Formula One Racing Car designer. He had constant pressure to design a car that would move faster than other competing cars. Every other competing designer was also working on the same problem -How to increase the speed of the car?

The problem was framed or anchored around the ‘Increasing Speed’(Framing Bias and Anchoring Bias). The goal of ‘Winning the race’ meant that the designers and the other management people were giving disproportionate weight to speed.

Gordon, reframed the problem in multiple ways-How can I make the car lighter? Lighter the car, the faster it can accelerate or decelerate. How to make it lighter-Can I reduce the parts? Can the car carry fewer spares? Can the car carry less fuel? Less Fuel? -Can we run the car with only a little over half level of fuel, instead of filling a full tank and a pit stop for refuelling? At that time, pitstops were only for emergencies. Gordon Murray innovated by introducing a planned pit stop for refuelling during a race.

Gordon also reframed the problem in another dimension-How to save time? He looked at every task involved in the whole process of racing. He designed a specialised pump that could save time in filling the fuel tank during the pit stop. Similarly, while replacing the new tyres during the planned pit stop, the tyres being cold takes two laps to get back to the top speed, and considerable time was lost in the race. He made a gas-fired heater, which kept tyres at 70 degrees and they opened and assembled as soon as the car arrives at the pit stop.

Reframing the problem would give you an alternate starting point to think and help in breaking the conventional wisdom. It helps us to challenge the original assumptions. It leads to innovative solutions. It opens up new opportunities.


As a designer, whenever a solution is generated, he or she would analyse the solution from his or her user’s perspective. He or she would go through the various tasks, possible scenarios of the solution as a user. It is not about us but about the users -That is the motto. Every decision is thought and analysed from the user’s perspective.

Similarly, many business leaders have put themselves into the mindset of various business stakeholders, particularly their consumers, and have analysed solutions from their perspective before implementing them.

Sam Walton had scrutinised many business decisions from his customer’s perspective and checked whether the solution would save money for his customers and also whether it would provide enhanced customer experience. This kind of thinking had helped him to invest in advanced technology, satellite communication, continuous replenishment system, automated warehousing & distribution. At the same time, his competitors were indecisive and failed to invest in advanced technology. Within the organization, whatever the idea, Sam Walton would think from his employee’s shoes, see how the activity would benefit him as an employee and then only he would implement. It had helped him to communicate his ideas effectively to his employees.

Andy Grove, as President of Intel, faced a critical situation in 1985. Intel was built on selling memory chips. They were the undisputed leaders for a couple of decades. In the last few years, a lot of Japenese competitors had cropped up and memory business was in the doldrums. At the same time, a small team inside Intel were developing microprocessor. It was still a small part of Intel’s overall business. Everyone was pushing Andy not to close down memory business. They went further and suggested him to invest in high-end manufacturing systems & a modern technology for memory chips so that cost could be brought down and quality could be better than Japanese companies-An incremental advantage. For days, Andy Grove and Gordon Moore pondered over the problem but were unable to decide a solution.

One day Andy asked Gordon, “Gordon, if we got kicked out of the company and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?”

Gordon answered, “He would get INTEL out of memory business and invest in Microprocessors”

Shocked, Andy continued “Why shouldn’t we walk out of the door, come back in, and do it ourselves”.

The perspective of an outsider helped Andy and Gordon to see things as a whole and provided a right solution.


As the core values of a brand define why a company exists, designers use them as a system of guiding principle, along with user research data to design solutions. Sometimes, a designer may have to trade-off some of the user requirements in order to follow the core values.

Similarly, many business leaders, with the guiding principle of ‘core values’ have taken decisions, that transformed their businesses and helped them to build trust among his customers, employees & other stakeholders.

Zappos -Logistics -The vision of Zappos is to provide ‘Excellent Customer Experience”. Tony Hsieh, CEO had taken decisions revolving around his brand’s core values. In the initial days, Zappos was following Drop-ship business where a Seller would ship the shoes directly to the consumer. For Zappos, this method was profitable and required less effort as there was no inventory and no shipping related expenses. But the brand was facing a plenty of customer service challenges. A lot of unhappy and disappointed customers. The company could not control the delays and the quality of shipments. As Zappos’ vision is about ‘best customer service’ and ‘drop-ship’ method is affecting the brand’s core values.

Zappos’ leadership had to take a decision. The leadership team realized that the longer they took to arrive at a decision, the employees could mistrust the leadership’s intentions. They had to ‘Walk the Talk’ and show the commitment. The leadership team decided to remove all the ‘drop-ship’ products from their website in an instant. They began to sell only the products which they stock. Thus warehousing and distribution became a core capability for Zappos.

Zappos -Call Center -Similarly, in their initial years of business, Zappos was considering whether to outsource the customer call centres to other private players. Zappos’ leadership team realized that ‘Customer Call-center’ is an important element in providing the best customer service. Any misgivings would affect the customer’s brand experience. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh believed that sales might not happen over the telephone but on an average, every customer would contact the brand’s call centre at least once during his or her lifetime and the brand should do their best in utilizing the opportunity to create a lasting memory. He was of the opinion that the telephone is one of the best branding devices out there where the brand would get a Customer’s undivided attention for five to ten minutes. If the customer representative would get the interaction right, the customer would remember the experience for a very long time and he or she would definitely tell his or her friends about it. Tony felt that ‘Call-centre’ was not an expense to be minimized but a core competency to help in achieving the brand’s vision. The brand’s ‘core values’ guided Tony’s decisions which helped the brand to grow rapidly and build brand loyalty.

Starbucks -Starbucks’ one of the core values is providing ‘Authentic Quality Coffee’. Howard Schultz, CEO was against selling flavoured artificial coffee beans as it would affect the brand’s foremost core value. The company buys, grinds and roasts all their own coffee, and sell it only in company-owned stores. The simple reason-They didn’t want to compromise the quality at any point from its production to its consumption. They had built trust by being authentic.

Every other competitor of Starbucks expanded quickly through the franchising route as it was the logical, quick and easy way to raise capital. But Howard never allowed franchising fearing the quality of the product.

Howard refused to entertain the idea of pouring the coffee beans into clear plastic bins, where they could get stale. He chose not to sell coffee beans in supermarkets in order to maintain a clear distinction from grocery store coffee.

The brand’s core values guided many of Howard’s business decisions.


Research shows that most of the business decisions failed when there is only one option to choose. David Nutt, a British Psychiatrist analyzed decisions made by businesses. Businesses which made decisions based on only a single option had a 52% failure rate and decisions based on multiple options had a 32% failure rate.

Mini Toothbrush -In 2006, Colgate wanted to launch a disposable mini toothbrush, approached a design studio for a product name. This toothbrush did not need any mouth rinsing and therefore could be used inside a cab, aircraft. The smaller size of the brush was so prominent that the branding team was unconsciously anchored their thoughts around names related to tiny, smallness, brush — Petite Brush, Mini-brush, Brush-let.

When the design team was asked to help, they reframed the problem in multiple ways. One direction was the “beauty” -the oral care — Better Looking white teeth and a pleasant smile. One of the biggest advantages of the toothbrush — No need to spit out, no big mass of minty lather or foam(A strong feature). Another direction they chose was — Lightness. They started looking for metaphors, sounds, words that could communicate Lightness. Out of the long list of words emerged “WISP” — Which means a small, thin, a twisted bunch(Wisp of rising smoke) representing lightness. The first option they got were related to size and brush. Multiple options broke the thinking mould and liberated the ideas.

One of the reasons why a designer is required to generate more than one idea is to prevent a person falling in love with a single idea and to avoid cognitive bias. We have seen how some CEOs had stuck to their only idea, exaggerated the benefits, became passionate about their solution, stood firm against disagreements, looked for information that had supported their solution and finally, ruined the businesses.

When only one idea/single option is there — We spend most of the time to make it work rather than exploring any other better option. We intend to find a way to get the team like the concept rather than exploring other ways to solve the problem. As we get attached to the idea, confirmation bias sets in blocking our ability to pay attention to opposing arguments resulting in an unbalanced view of our solution. Any disagreements would be viewed as a personal criticism and we would react weirdly, spoiling the relationship, future cooperation of the team affecting implementation of the idea.

A single option would further stifle innovation, affect team spirit, discourage others from suggesting or sharing their ideas — It would be detrimental to business in the long run.

In the case of multiple solutions, people would discuss ideas, provide feedback on ideas rather than on people. Ideas compete and not people.

To generate multiple ideas, you need the support of a multi-disciplinary team resulting in a healthy exchange of ideas, knowledge — It is a collaborative and open problem-solving process. In the collaborative problem-solving process, the team would be happy to share the collective ownership of failure, learn from it and move the organization forward.


One of the creative tools, the designers used to explore future scenarios is “What If”.

“What If” tool may not predict the exact future but could help in reducing some of the uncertainties.

A coffee brand company asked, “What if customers become suddenly health conscious?” -They introduced Skimmed milk and other related products. The coffee brand further asked, “What if competitors opened their stores near our stores which were at important locations?” — The brand went and clustered their stores in those locations with the intention of increasing brand awareness & increasing market share and they ultimately saturated the market and built a strong competitive advantage.

Minnetonka -In 1980s Minnetonka’s Robert R Taylor wanted to introduce a liquid soap called ‘Softsoap’ dispensed by a soft hand pump and could be used in homes for handwashing. Most people used bar soaps that time and the competition were heavier in this market due to bigger brands. Results from pilot testing of liquid soap sample in the market were encouraging. The “Softsoap” appeared that it would capture rapid market share.

Robert R Taylor asked himself two questions — What if Sales was booming high? What if competitors launch the copy product soon?

These questions had made the Minnetonka team generate explanations for those scenarios — They came across one common major reason for both the scenarios to happen — The dispensing pumps.

There were only two companies that supplied plastic dispensing pumps and they had a limitation in production quantities. If the sales were high, the pumps would be a bottleneck in meeting the market demand. If competitor launched a similar product, it would further affect the supply of pumps to Minnetonka. The solution — The Minnetonka executives signed a contract of 100 million units of the pump assembly with both the suppliers for a period of 18–24 months.

Big bar manufacturers could not get the Pump Assembly for the next two years and by the time they entered the market, Minnetonka had a firm foothold.

‘What If’ forces your mind out of logical reasoning, create a future scenario and work backwards to the present. It would force us to find reasons why the event might happen and play a critical role in business decision-making. It would help a leader to act preemptively, rather than reacting to situations after they have occurred.


David Kelly, of IDEO, calls prototyping as “Thinking with your hands”. A crude prototype is effective in the evaluation and evolution of ideas, effective in breaking the complexity, effective in rapid sharing, communicating and convincing others, effective in driving the idea forward and accelerating the pace of the project.

Designers would like to test the concept ideas as early as possible during the conceptualisation stage itself. They prefer low fidelity models as prototypes to test the “User Experience”, “User Benefits” before going for a costly development of a new or improved service/product prototype in the later stages. One of the tools, designers use to simulate the concept — Acting out scenarios or role-playing. No hardware or software needed — It saves time and money. Simulate the scenarios.

Let’s see an example from the movie “Up In The Air”.

In the movie “Up in the air”, Ryan Bingham(Goerge Clooney) works for a firm that specialises in ‘employee termination assistance’. Corporates(companies unwilling to do the firing themselves) hire this firm’s resources to fire their own employees. Ryan’s firm has been spending a considerable amount of money on Travel, Insurance, Food and Stay for its employees and they were looking for a way to reduce the expenses.

Natalie Keener, a young and ambitious new hire, proposes a solution to the firm’s CEO to cut down the expenses by 85% and also help employees to spend more time with their own families. The solution was to conduct layoffs via video conferencing.

Ryan is unhappy, informs his boss that Natalie is yet to grasp an in-depth understanding of users, and it would be impossible that the solution would be relevant and meaningful. He highlights that she needs to understand how the customer would think, how they would behave in various scenarios, before proposing a solution.

In one of the scenes, Ryan would demonstrate the drawbacks of Natalie’s proposed solution, which is nothing but Ryan was prototyping the proposed idea. He would ask Natalie to act out how she would fire him from the office.

“Ok, Natalie, Fire Me” — Ryan.

“Imagine we are connected through video conferencing” -Ryan, though both of them would be sitting across the table. An easier way to prototype. No need for software or hardware. Just act out.

At this moment, we need to note that Ryan would not act as Ryan Bingham, but act like how a couple of real customers would behave. One a bit aggressive user and the other customer a bit timid, very sensitive.

Natalie :Mr Bingham,I regret to inform you that your position
at this company is no longer available.
Ryan :Hm. Who the hell are you?Natalie : My name is Miss Keener. I'm here
today to discuss your future.
Ryan : My future? The only one who can fire me
is Craig Gregory.
Natalie : Mr Gregory hired me to handle this for him.
Ryan : - Handle what? Handle Me?
Natalie : Mr. Gregory hired me,
Ryan : he's the only one who can fire me.
Ryan : You know what? I'm gonna go talk to him.
Natalie : - Mr Bingham...
Ryan would get up at this point and move towards the door. Natalie
too would get up, run behind Ryan to stop him. Ryan would remind her

Ryan : No, no, no. You can't follow me.
You're on a computer screen, remember?

So, Ryan would demonstrate how a firing through a computer screen would not match the real-life requirements.

Now, Ryan would act as a different type of user and ask Natalie to fire him again.

Natalie : Mr Bingham, I'm here to inform you
your position is no longer available.
Ryan : I'm fired?
Natalie : - Yes, you're fired.
Ryan advises : Never say fired.
Natalie : - You've been let go.
Ryan : Why?Natalie : This is a mythical situation.
How could I possibly know why?
Natalie : Why doesn't matter,
Ryan : you never know why.
Natalie : It's important to not focus on the why, and rather, spend
your energy thinking about your future.
Ryan : Well, I'm gonna spend
my energy on suing you
unless you give me a good
reason why you're firing me.
Natalie : Mr. Bingham, the reason's not important.Ryan : So you're firing me without grounds?
Now I really have a lawsuit.

Now, Ryan has demonstrated how the company would end up in facing the potential lawsuit. Though the movie showed only a couple of scenarios, it was good enough to decide whether the solution would be good or not. Designers generally act out many scenarios and user types before finalising a concept. Prototype your solution.


References: Content mainly from the book ‘Decisive’ by Chip and Dan Heath. Other reference books are as follows-What Great Brands Do by Denise Lee John, Good To Great by Jim Collins, Sam Walton’s Made in America, Wired to Care by Dev Patnaik, Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh, Pour Your Heart by Howard Schultz, The Hidden Traps in Decision Making — HBR article by John S. Hammond, Ralph L.Keeney, Howard Raiffa, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Well Designed by Jon Kolko, Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman.

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at or

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store