Better Decisions through Headspace Mapping

By Jon Miller Updated on September 25th, 2016


When I was just getting started in business twenty years ago, one of my mentors had the habit of asking me, “Are you making an emotional decision or are you making a business decision?” A business decision, of course, I would often reply. It took me years to separate rational thinking from emotion. The first step was to understand my mentor’s question and recognize when anger, fear, optimism or desire was unduly influencing my decisions. Even today when I am much better at recognizing this, it takes conscious effort and is not easy to keep a clear headspace at all times.

A recent Atlantic Monthly article titled the best headspace for making decisions reminded me of this. The article asks, and attempts to answer the question of how to weigh rational analysis and intuition in decision-making. “Should you make ever-more-detailed lists of pros and cons and seek advice from even more trusted sources? Or should you go with your gut?” The article suggests that a happy headspace is no better than angry or fearful one when it comes to making good decisions.

There appears to be no mood that would put you in the perfect frame of mind for, well, making up your mind. So what’s a decision-maker to do? The best bet might be to accept that you’re going to have emotions, but to try to keep them from influencing your thought process.

Well, thanks for that. How, specifically can we do this? What is the lean approach? A major part of lean is problem solving. Problem solving requires identification of abnormalities and deviations. Identification relies on things being noticeable and visible. How can we make the impact of our emotions on decision-making more visible? Let’s apply some visual management and gemba observation skills. We can practice with a tool called the empathy map, pictured below.


Empathy mapping is often used to develop empathy, in other words to understand the thoughts and feelings, of another person. The empathy map guides us to observe and write down what the person is doing and saying, how they are influenced by what they are hearing and seeing, and what they are thinking and feeling. Used in sales, marketing and product development to understand how the customer perceives the product or service. This information is then used to develop and deliver products and services that meed their needs. Used for conflict resolution, mediation or overcoming resistance to change, empathy maps can help people recognize differences and find common ground without being derailed by emotion.

We can also use this tool to map our own headspace and become more self-aware of how emotions are affecting our decision-making. What is our thinking, or rationale, for this decision? What are we seeing and hearing, and how does this influence our thinking? What are we saying and doing, and what does this reveal? Finally, what feelings and emotions are influencing this particular decision?

In the lean mindset, decisions are experiments. Many of them will be proven to be poor. We need to learn from mistakes. Mapping our headspace ahead of time and laying bare our assumptions, in terms of data and rational thinking as well as how are intuition and emotions led to the decisions, will give us the basis for refinement and continuous improvement of how we make decisions. If we can keep a clear head, we can fill it intentionally with the things that we want, the things that will help us arrive at better decisions.

  1. Isaac Curtis

    October 13, 2016 - 2:44 pm

    If what we perceive is an extension of ourselves than we would want to understand and communicate with those in our workplace so that we can increase the quality of our own work, a win-win

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