“With good judgment, little else matters. Without it, nothing else matters." - Noel Tichy, Warren Bennis ( from How Winning Leaders make great calls)

Good judgment is a quality that is universally desired but is surprisingly difficult to define or characterise precisely. Try it. Pause before reading further and attempt a succinct definition of judgement.
Did you manage it? We usually describe it by thinking of examples of good, and mostly bad judgements (aka lapses in judgement). If you cannot easily define it, how do you know if you possess it?
Yet the single most quality that differentiates great leaders from bad ones is the ability to make good judgements. I'd argue that good judgement and focus are the two things you need to be successful in life in todays complex and fast moving evolving world.  In this post, we'll explore the what, why and how of sound judgement.

What is it?

Judgement is the ability to apply your knowledge, expertise and experience to choose appropriate mental models to make ( good-enough as opposed to perfect) decisions in the absence of unambiguous data or a clear-cut path.

Why is it important?

The ability to make a good judgement is crucial, especially when there are too many rules. If you blindly follow the rules (treating it as an end in itself) without using your judgement, you will eventually stop thinking for yourself which leads to at best bad decisions and at worst harmful or incorrect actions when the rules are not clear-cut.

Sir Andrew Likierman of London Business School says it best:

Those with ambition but no judgment run out of money. Those with charisma but no judgment lead their followers in the wrong direction. Those with passion but no judgment hurl themselves down the wrong paths. Those with drive but no judgment get up very early to do the wrong things. Sheer luck and factors beyond your control may determine your eventual success, but good judgment will stack the cards in your favour.

So, how do we cultivate good judgement?

Is judgment an innate quality or an acquired instinct? Some individuals are born with the ability to listen (really listen), use their gut feeling and analytical mind to interpret evidence, and use their expertise and knowledge to make the right decisions. Those who are born with these skills are rare, but the good news is that most of us can learn to make sound judgements.

The process is quite straightforward if you think about it -

  • Take in raw information by (active) listening, reading or through direct experience
  • Summarising the information in your own words by applying your expertise and knowledge. When you don't have either the requisite knowledge or relevant expertise - then get someone else that has both to do the summary
  • Analysing and sifting the output by making your biases, feelings and beliefs explicit
  • Creating an outline of actionable viable choices - bonus points for considering radical choices
  • Filtering or sorting the options based on feasibility of execution
  • Finally, making the decision

This process is not easy, and it shouldn't be. If it were, we'd never put a wrong foot forward. With practice, you'd be able to go through these steps swiftly and automatically. It is, however, possible to follow all these steps and still make the wrong choice. The world is complex, and it is impossible to fully overcome our biases, and we will never have complete information needed to make the process work. Also, good judgement has an element of luck, and it isn't easy to ascertain if you made the right call or if you were just plain lucky. But by following these steps, you improve the probability of making the right choice.

Conclusion

(Narrow) artificial intelligence, with the help of machine learning algorithms and vast troves of data, is getting better at dissecting information and executing routine tasks, but the one area where we humans still have an edge is the ability to make good judgement.

You might be charismatic, driven, ambitious and have all the resources at your fingertips but if you don't possess the aptitude for good judgement, then your decisions and actions based on those decisions will be ineffective and ineffectual. Cultivating this ability will give you an edge over your competitors and make you a better leader and person.