Blink & Strategic Sourcing

"Blink” and Strategic Sourcing

by Luke Montoya


Recently I read “Blink” by Malcom Gladwell and found its insights interesting to consider in the context of Strategic Sourcing.  Blink’s focus is analyzing quick judgments, often made within a few seconds or less.  Gladwell concludes that in certain situations quick judgments are not only necessary but can be more accurate than decisions made after detailed analysis, while other times quick judgments are inaccurate due to unconscious biases.

 Some examples Gladwell provides to show the power of quick judgments are (1) several art experts recognizing the inauthenticity of a claimed historical statue within seconds, despite long investigations by geologists and lawyers previously finding otherwise (facts discovered later confirmed the art work as being fake), (2) people being able to effortlessly recognize faces even though they would have trouble describing or drawing the face, and (3) during a high-level USA military exercise, an experienced military strategist with limited information being able to outwit the other side that had mountains of data and tools to analyze the battle.  Surprisingly, during certain activities people actually became worse at their task if they attempted to think through and describe their reasoning; for example, Blink shared a study that found people are actually worse at recognizing previously-seen faces if they attempt to first describe the person in written detail (the reason is because the more accurate visual recognition area of the brain is negatively displaced by the less than fully accurate written descriptions).

 On the other hand, there are several examples of quick judgments being very incorrect, which is often associated with unconscious biases.  For example, Blink shares the concept of implicit association tests (see to try the tests yourselves) where almost all people have a slower response time in attempting to match positive words with certain categories and negative words with other categories.  Another example is how classical music composers used to almost universally be convinced that top-level women could not play classical instruments as well as top-level men (the composers thought women did not have powerful enough lungs, big enough hands, or other physical attributes to play the instruments as effectively as the top men musicians) but when blind auditions became the norm, the number of women in orchestras quickly increased five-fold.

 If we know quick judgments are sometimes good and sometimes bad, how does that knowledge help us?  Blink teaches us that we should be aware of the possibility of unconscious bias (for example, maybe advertisements have unconsciously persuaded us incorrectly that one supplier is more effective than another), but that preparation and state of mind can improve our judgments.  For example, with respect to preparation, art experts and food-tasting experts can almost instantly more accurately detect truths within their respective areas of expertise (e.g., whether a piece of art they see is a fake, or whether an item of food they taste has a certain ingredient) than a layman who has not engaged in years of study of that subject.  With respect to frame of mind, Blink discusses the concept of “priming”, giving an example of a study where one group of people was asked to think about what it means to be a professor for five minutes and the other group was asked to think about rowdy soccer fans for five minutes, and then immediately afterwards both groups were asked a series of difficult random questions, and the group that thought about the characteristics of a professor beforehand did significantly better (showing that putting yourself in an academic frame of mind helps more accurately answer difficult questions).  What I take from this with respect to Strategic Sourcing is that (1) the benefit of quick judgments can be improved through years of preparation, focus, and education and (2) that intentionally putting yourself in a confident and a prepared frame of mind can help with quick judgments (in other words, the quick judgments made during a negotiation can be improved by taking time to not only prepare with facts and strategy before a negotiation, but also by making sure to give yourself time before the negotiation to get into a confident and focused frame of mind).

 While study and detailed time-consuming effort can often be useful in procurement, such as when comparing two different complicated pricing models or reading a contract and preparing a markup, significant business decisions often are made during the heat of an intense negotiation when there is not time to do a careful analysis before each statement or response is made.  With that in mind, I hope that we all take comfort that Blink shows us that if we spend years studying strategic sourcing’s different areas, and intentionally put ourselves in a confident and thoughtful frame of mind before negotiations, we are more likely to improve our quick judgments made during negotiations.






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