A cheap notebook


This notebook could save your bacon

Here’s why [link]

Daniel Kahneman was asked how we can improve our performance.

Kahneman, the author of Thinking: Fast and Slow, replied, almost without hesitation, that you should go down to the local drugstore and buy a very cheap notebook and start keeping track of your decisions.

Whenever you’re making a decision of consequence

1.     take a moment to think

2.     Write down the relevant variables that will govern the outcome

3.     Write what you expect to happen

4.     Write why you expect it to happen.

A journal of this nature will reduce hindsight bias and give you accurate and honest feedback.

It’ll also help you distinguish between when you’re right for the wrong reasons and when you’re wrong for the right reasons.

If you’re anything like me, one thing that you’ll discover is that, on the few occasions when you’re right, it’s often for the wrong reasons.

Using Decision Journals in Organizations

Somewhat surprisingly, few organizations keep track of what’s decided and why.

This seems idiotic when you consider that often thousands of dollars are spent making a decision. Of the few that do keep track of decisions, fewer will be honest about what’s actually discussed.

While accurate, for example, few people will write down that the highest paid person in the room, usually the boss, said to do X, and that’s why you’re doing it.

But that’s kinda the point isn’t it?

If you can’t write down what was discussed, the relevant variables that govern the decision, and why you think something will play out, than you should seriously think about why you’re making the decision in the first place. It could be that you don’t understand what’s going on at all. If that’s the case it’s important to know.

I get that we have to make decisions under uncertainty. But you’re going to struggling learning from those decisions unless you keep track of, and review, what’s decided and why.

While people come and go, organizations often seem to make the same mistakes over and over. Improving our ability to make decisions is simple, but not easy.

A journal will not only allow you to reduce your hindsight bias, but it will force to you make your rationale explicit upfront. This habit will often surface bad thinking that might have otherwise slipped by.

If my place had owned a small notebook that it wrote stuff down in, then would my job have been very different over the last 8 years  or more?

Would this have happened…

I used to work on a team that was called “the performance management team”.

It was managed by the manager who was often called “the performance management manager”, who presumably managed the performance of the team of performance management officers who did performance management by writing performance management reports so managers could manage performance.


CAREFUL! You could have someone’s eye out with that

Despite this phrase being so ubiquitous you could trip up over it like coils of loose rope left around by a careless docker, no performance ever came near us to be managed thankfully.

Instead, we spent our time starting up, then shutting down, different ways of concocting performance management reports.

These went by the hoity-toity name of “performance management framework“.

This was basically what size piece of paper did you use (A3 being the zenith, A4 being the nadir. Oh, my soul for an A3.5!) and what bit of IT program did you use to store stuff on. Some folks liked to think it was a bit more complicated than that and added explanatory diagrams to show it’s forward thinking rationality, but don’t be fooled, it was ALWAYS down to the size of the paper report and the name of the IT program used to produce it. A4 or A3. That’s broadly it.

Some fframeworks, yest

Behind every one of THESE frameworks is a size of paper and someone soon to leave their post in disgrace

One day, quite recently, I discovered something.

I discovered that we had all been wasting our time going round and round in circles.

YES! I know it’s all nonsense and that we are trying again and again, over and over, to do the wrong thing right. Even though I knew that, I had never spotted the beautifully circular way we went about this.


The sheer beauty of it is that all it needs is for nobody to ever notice that we’d gone round the circle once before. When a goldfish-like depth of memory is achieved you can go round it as many times as you like and nobody would ever notice.

I had witnessed numerous performance management managers go round the circle, some even surviving for another go around. Nobody ever noticed that nothing changed except who was along for the ride.

Recently I unravelled the last 4 goes round, straightened them out, and put them onto a wall, in chronological order, every permutation of every framework. All the ICT systems named and shamed, the despicable scorecards that were the length of a grown man, every obscenity dragged out of its performance grave and into the purifying light of day.

We had them all, lassoed and rounded up safely tacked to a long wall, away from children.

Now all that was needed was for people to see. Look, see! Don’t you remember THAT one! God, how foolish we must have been then to have been fooled by that.
Like people looking at old photos of themselves at college, they were simultaneously amused and slightly embarrassed at the gaucheness of it all.

And we didn’t learn a thing.

Oh, we learnt a new joke, the performance merry-go-round. That’s an established punchline now.

But we didn’t learn enough to get off the merry-go-round.

What I learnt was that people don’t learn like that. It isn’t enough to show people the repeating pattern. It was all good fun, showing them something novel they’d not seen before, or not seen put together in that way, out in the open to gawp at.

But what it wasn’t was learning. There was no actual need to learn, no pull to move from a painful place to another more desirable place. If the system rewards you for not noticing that you are merely along for the ride, then you are certainly not going to want to learn that it’s just a ride. Any facts that might move you to learn are dismissed as merely amusing.

I am often accused of cynicism.

mock surprise


But I don’t think I am cynical, cynicism isn’t knowing what is wrong, it is knowing what’s wrong and dismissing it as merely something to amuse a jaded palate.  It doesn’t matter what lessons get dragged out of history to try and avoid being doomed to repeat them, not if the only response can be an amused smile and a unconscious determination to carry on repeating them.

Like that nice Mr Deming said, it’s not compulsory you know.

two to tango

This entry was posted in learning, me doing it, plans, public sector, systems thinking and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A cheap notebook

  1. robsmallshire says:

    A3.5 paper exists. It’s called B4.


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