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 / Autumn 2013 / Issue 72(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Thought Leader Interview: Loran Nordgren

The cofounder of unconscious thought theory explains how taking a break and distracting the mind can lead to higher-quality decision making.

Could you boost the quality of decision making and innovation at your company by encouraging a more structured form of intuition? Loran Nordgren thinks you could. Indeed, the associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management argues that adopting new approaches to how we process thought is the remedy that will free organizations from the shackles of traditional strategic planning.

Nordgren, who grew up in Chicago, cofounded a body of work called unconscious thought theory with Ap Dijksterhuis, a professor at Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands, while getting his Ph.D. in social psychology at the University of Amsterdam. Based on in-depth studies of the impact of different ways of merging analytical thinking and strategic intuition, this theory proposes, in effect, that some forms of thought processing consistently lead to more beneficial choices and more effective problem solving.

Thought Leader Interview: Loran Nordgren

In the first part of this four-part video series, Loran Nordgren, an associate professor at Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, tells Amy D'Onofrio, enterprise strategy practice coordinator at Booz & Company, that taking a break and distracting the mind can lead to higher-quality decision making.

As Nordgren’s crossover from psychology to business school might suggest, unconscious thought theory is finding a receptive audience among pragmatic, day-to-day decision makers. Over the past two decades, many managers have come to recognize that decisions made solely through rational analysis, especially in conventional strategic planning exercises, tend to lead to failure. That realization opened a door through which a large number of right-brain boosters and intuition specialists squeezed in to promote themselves, with even spottier results. It’s understandable that many business leaders throw up their hands and say, “It doesn’t matter what process we use to make decisions. Let’s just muddle through.” Unfortunately, those outcomes are also unreliable.

Nordgren and his colleagues have sought a more deliberate way to combine rational and intuitive decision-making processes. This makes the research inherently interdisciplinary; as Nordgren notes, it stands “at the intersection of experimental psychology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience.” The optimal approach they discovered, and confirmed through a long series of research studies, seems simple at first glance. They advise setting aside periods of time to let the unconscious parts of the brain process information. Go for a walk. Sleep on it. Turn off your attention. (Their most influential paper, published in Science in 2006, is called “On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect.”) But putting the approach into practice, which has been the subject of Nordgren’s more recent research, requires some sophisticated and often counterintuitive design of the decision-making and strategy formation experience, and a unique way of thinking about (and welcoming) distraction.

We sat down with Nordgren in Booz & Company’s New York offices in June 2013—first in a workshop session on enterprise strategy, and then in a follow-up interview. The conversations flowed naturally together; both were focused on the implications of Nordgren’s approach to the practice of strategy.

In Conversation: Loran Nordgren on How To Encourage Innovation

In the second part of this "In Conversation" video series, Kellogg's Loran Nordgren talks about how tapping into the unconscious can spark creativity and innovation in the corporate world.

S+B: What is unconscious thought theory?
It’s really a general theory of how the mind works. It tries to explain how people form decisions, where new ideas come from, how problems can be solved effectively. The empirical work focuses on the processes of thought that take place when people choose among alternatives, and when they come up with new ideas.

When you ask people how they approach the most important executive decisions that they have to make—and especially how they expect to get the best results from the decision—you find out that people gravitate toward one of two approaches. Some are basically rationalists. They think that the best decisions, the most innovative ideas, and the most effective solutions to problems come through a systematic, rational, deliberative process. Other people say that the best solutions are intuitive. There’s wisdom in your gut feeling.

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