Making Better Decisions with Matt Confer 

Matt Confer is VP of Strategy and Business Development at Abilitie where they use team-based simulation training to enhance leadership development.  He earned his MBA from Boston University while beginning his career with Deloitte Consulting.  He has a popular TedX talk called 3 Steps to Better Decision Making and he also hosts a leadership podcast called, “Learn to Lead.”





Inside This Episode

  • Challenging the Constraints
  • Define the Problem, Reframe It
  • The Power of Discipline in Decision-Making
  • Find a Better Lens
  • Expanding Your Skillset in a Simulated Environment
  • A Key Secret of Walt Disney’s Approach to Decisions
  • The Downfall of Assuming Success
  • The Bias Towards Self-Affirmation
  • Watch and Listen Rather than Talk and Dictate
  • 3 Steps to Effective Decision-Making
  • How Missing the Details can Derail a Decision
  • The Benefits and Need for Virtual Training
  • The Cobra Effect
  • Trust and Transparency in Effective Leadership

John Ryan
You're listening to key conversations for leaders. This is episode number 25. Welcome everybody. In today's episode, we're going to be discussing how to make better decisions with Matt confort. We'll be covering three steps to better decision making, how to challenge the constraints of a decision, what to do before you make a decision and why considering the dreamer, the realist and the skeptic can help you make better decisions and much, much more. It's the simple things that we do every day that determines our success. It's the routines, the rituals, the little decisions that we make, and the conversations that we have on a daily basis that build on each other to create momentum towards our vision. That's what this show is about better conversations for better leaders.

John Ryan 0:50
Hey, everybody, and welcome to key conversations for leaders. I'm your host John Ryan, and today we have a very special guest, Matt confor. Matt is vice president of strategy and business affairs. edibility where they use team based simulation training to enhance leadership development. He earned his MBA from Boston University while beginning his career with Deloitte Consulting. He has a popular TEDx talk called three steps to better decision making. And he also hosts a leadership podcast called learn to lead. Welcome to the show, Matt.

Matt Confer 1:20
It's great to be here.

John Ryan 1:22
Thank you. And I want to start off by asking, you know, for those who aren't necessarily familiar with your TEDx talk yet on the three steps to better decision making, can you tell us a little bit about the the Stanford story and and what that's all about?

Matt Confer 1:36
Yeah, so as you mentioned in the introduction, we're an organization that does simulation based training, which gives us this really nice lens into watching how people perform when we kind of, for lack of a better way to describe it, put them to the test of it, and we were, I was offered the opportunity to speak on the TEDx stage and decided to call the talk before you decide to Steps to better decision making and a big part of what drove that decision was, we've watched 10s of thousands of people compete and participate in these simulations. And one of the things that we noticed is a lot of people when presented with a problem or a decision or a challenge, their gut reaction is to just jump right in and solve it. It's like a response that we just want to solve problems. And what we've noticed time and time again, and one of the best part about my job is actually getting to facilitate and work with some of these leaders all around the world. What we've noticed is that successful teams actually take a first step before they decide. And so we tried to break it down into three steps. And the first step was what we call challenge the constraints. And that references the Stanford story that you talked about. And so I started the TEDx talk by describing a class on entrepreneurship at Stanford. Where the professor prevents the students with a challenge. She basically splits the group into teams, she hands each team in on envelope, and in the envelope is $5. And the professor says to all of the teams that this $5 represents brand new seed funding for a new company that each of you are going to create in your teams. And you really have one goal, turn the $5 into the most money possible. She then tells the students that the final part of the exercise is going to be to get together at the end of this period. And you've got to tell all the other students what you did, and how much money you generated. And Excuse me, what normally happens is everybody takes a moment and starts to think about, you know, what the heck they would do if presented with the same challenge. And what's always fascinating to me is what ended up happening is the winning team actually didn't even use the $5. In essence, they challenged the constraints of the exercise What they did is they actually spent the time finding a company in town who was willing to pay them for the right to present to the rest of the students. So basically, they challenged the constraints didn't use the $5 found a company in town that wanted to recruit students at Stanford, and sold them the rights to their presentation. And so I love that story. And that's how I kicked off the TEDx talk.

John Ryan 4:28
It's such a great story. And like you said, It ties back to defining the problem before jumping into the solution. And at the same time, you said, challenging the constraints. So what is that first step? Is it challenging the constraints? Is it defining the problem or are they one in the same?

Matt Confer 4:46
I view them somewhat as one in the same what what I find that is fascinating to me is, like I mentioned, we have the pleasure of working with some really innovative companies on their leadership development effort. So the vast majority of people that we're working with have ascended to a certain level of stature in different organizations. But yet, when we present them with a challenge, they become so engrossed in solving that they just want to start doing. And the teams that are more successful, kind of take a step back, reframe the problem, challenge the constraints that we've presented with. So I almost view it as kind of a one stop shop for how to actually start to tackle a problem. And so I do think you can kind of use it interchangeably, you really need to define the problem, reframe the problem, and then really challenge those constraints that exists in the problem that you're presented with.

John Ryan 5:43
Imagine cuz that gives you more choices in how to go and proceed to achieve the outcome that you're actually trying to achieve.

Matt Confer 5:52
100% and I think it is tough sometimes to take that giant step back. People talk very freely. About the 20,000 foot view, how is this going to affect other parts of the organization? What is really a solid footing for us to step forward on, but really, it takes a you have to force yourself to kind of go against what might be your natural instincts.

John Ryan 6:17
So with our natural instincts being we want to be proactive, we want to jump in, and that's certainly part of being a leader and being effective to why is it that we feel we fall into that trap of focusing on action rather than conscious decision making and expanding the problem set as you're talking about?

Matt Confer 6:38
I think the largest driver of it is we become conditioned that what works to get us to the place we are today is what's going to work going forward. And for many of us who have been successful or ascending in our career or have already potentially ascended, it's kind of hard to break some of those habits and so it's If you were somebody who was seen as a problem solver seen as a go getter seen as somebody who can do the job, it's sometimes very hard for you to deviate from that. And so what it sometimes takes and and very often takes is a real concerted effort to think about problems and decisions with a different lens and a different framework. And when we titled The talk before you decide, a lot of a part of it was most people don't even take a second to do anything, they just decide. And so we wanted and I from the stage, really wanted to talk about how a lot of the power of your opportunity to turn decisions into strategic advantages happens before you make the decision.

John Ryan 7:46
So in your in your lab, which is I imagine you guys refer to as a lab, right? You're seeing people really do experiments on the fly, and their assumptions about how they make decisions and all the things that have worked in the past. Are those part of the constraints that they're coming with is their own decision making, not just the ones you're presenting in the exercise?

Matt Confer 8:06
Yeah, a lot of the times when we talk about the simulation, I try to reference other industries. So pilots, for example, get into a simulator to try different things before they ever get behind. You know, the the jumbo jet. And our goal is to actually have a simulated environment where leaders in corporate America can actually try things with their people management skills, or their financial acumen skills or their strategic thinking skills as almost a sandbox to test, iterate and try different things. I always talk about myself, personally and I struggled with, you know, you get into a sense of what type of manager you are, and then it's petrifying, to deviate from that because you're dealing with real humans and you don't want to make a grave mistake when it's very buddy's career on the line. And so our hope in building a simulated environment for myself as an as a continued example is you get to try being a different type of manager, you get to try providing feedback in a way that's maybe outside of your comfortable limits. And I think that's a powerful tool that we don't use enough when we're looking to develop the leaders of tomorrow.

John Ryan 9:24
So it creates an environment where they they can step back question their assumptions and challenge their own beliefs about what they should or should not do as a leader in a relatively low stakes environment. So they make better decisions when they go forward.

Matt Confer 9:39
Yeah, I have a colleague who refers to simulation based training as a pressure cooker for your true emotions. And I would say that resonates with me and that's what I see frequently in our simulations. It's really hard for you to push against and without going into your preconceived notions and successful individuals in our facilitators I think do a really good job of it is trying to push you to try something different. You might not like the way the result happens. But I think you're a more effective leader. If you push yourself to try different ways of handling yourself and then it may be reinforces that the way you've done it in the past is actually the right way. But it allows you to kind of iterate pivot change, do things a little bit differently and see how that plays out for you.

John Ryan 10:30
So what are some of the best ways and imagined questions are part of that to challenge the constraints to can challenge your own thinking processes and decision making processes? What do you see people doing to try to reevaluate and look for new options?

Matt Confer 10:46
Yeah, time and time again, taking multiple viewpoints into your consideration, I think is critical. I tell a story sometimes about Walt Disney and he had this approach where every decision But he was making, he tried to approach it with a three lens approach. And he called the three lenses, the dreamer, the realist and the skeptic. So he had this dreaming fantastical, whimsical methodology where he kind of considered anything was plausible. And then he kind of took a realist approach to it, like what is actually not just outlandish what is actually possible. And then he kind of had this negative, cynical nature, this skeptical nature, and he put every decision through multiple lenses, and a good chunk of the work that we do talks about as a team, you have to take multiple viewpoints in distill them, and then actually make a decision. That's kind of the collective benefit of the team's knowledge. If you're all coming from different places, and you all have a different perspective. And you can put a decision in front of all those different lenses, you really become more effective, no matter what decision you wind up going with because you're kind of stress testing the decision.

John Ryan 12:03
So the dreamer, the realist, and the cynic, you're going to have a more balanced decision making results, just by even going through that process. Because it's going to be somewhere not necessarily the middle, but you're not going to be so extreme like the dreamer. It sounds to me like that connects to what I think you referred to, as when people assume success, which is, which is one of the the challenges that you guys have identified as well. Can you talk a little bit about but what the downfalls of being that dreamer is where they just assume success, and that's the only reality they're paying attention to?

Matt Confer 12:36
Yeah, it's actually a nice segue to step two in the before you decide framework, and it was called embrace a pre mortem. And the reason that I referred to it like that from the stage is, we're all very familiar with the concept of a post mortem. They happen a lot in business, they happen a lot in life, you wait until something is over, and then You kind of evaluate with a real critical eye, you know what went right? What went wrong. What we don't see a lot of people do and we think it's a miss is consider on the onset that you should embrace a pre mortem, which really means, assume the decision that you're about to make is going to be a failure, and you actually have to distill out why it would fail. And that's a really tough mental exercise. Kind of to piggyback on what you were saying there. It's really easy, or it's almost second nature for us to consider a decision and then kind of contemplate all of the ways that we're going to be immensely successful. Yeah. And it's, it's tough and it's mentally taxing to say, Okay, if we do this, and three months later, we get back together for that post mortem. And it's a failure. Why would that happen, but teams and individuals that take that leap and force themselves to contemplate action abject failure, actually are better decision makers going forward.

John Ryan 14:05
So forcing yourself to go through that it sounds like there you have quite a process involved in doing the pre mortem or the that it's not just what's the worst that can happen on the cynical side, but really considering asking why did that happen and getting a little bit more detailed? And then once you get that information, I imagine you can, you're actually challenging the constraints. And you're actually as a result of that process, seeing new possibilities to minimize. The downside is that is that close?

Matt Confer 14:34
I couldn't agree more. And I'm always flabbergasted. I'll walk around. We do a lot of our simulation training in the classroom. We also do a lot of it fully virtually. So when I'm working with a specific group, and they're contemplating a decision, it's always really interesting. They'll tell me the six different ways that something they're considering could be a massive success like they have formulated out how they do this and then this happens this We'll be, you know, fireworks and champagne, it'll be great. And then they'll tell me a different way. But they're going to be really successful. And you really have to press them to figure out one, two, or it would be like incredible if they could figure out three ways that they're going to fail. The human mind just has a lot of more barriers to get to that, how are we going to fail component? And I think that just that makes you more effective when you force yourself to consider that

John Ryan 15:27
because we have a natural affirmation bias, right. So we think that the decisions we make are solid and rational. I imagine emotions come into play a lot in decision making. What have you seen in terms of the emotions especially, you know, fear, or I don't know what other emotions might come into play? What what do you what are you experiencing or noticing on those types of things?

Matt Confer 15:50
A question that I get frequently is when you're working with a group for the first time, what are you noticing about how different team dynamics play out I think fear is one that comes out. I think another one is assertiveness, I have a natural kind of, I think I appreciate more of the people who hang back a little bit in the beginning, and watch and listen more than talk and dictate to start. And so to me a skill that I've seen leaders that really resonate with their teams are those that are more, they more listen before they start to try to talk right away. I think teammates tend to really appreciate having somebody on their team who is not just dictating to them right off the bat. And I think those teams that have that personality tend to be more successful as the experience goes on.

John Ryan 16:47
Can we talk a little bit more about you know what really good decision making No, you've identified the first two steps and maybe we can recap those and put them in a in a full sequence on the three things that really make it possible for us to have factor of decision making. What are those three things if you don't mind sharing those in their entirety?

Matt Confer 17:04
Yeah. So the first step, which we hit on was challenged the constraints. And that really is about taking a step back before you just see a problem and kind of take a puppy approach to it, you see a ball and you just want to chase it and just decide, instead, you really need to step back and actually see what constraints are holding you back from a big breakthrough. Step two is forcing yourself to not just contemplate all of the ways that you will be tremendously successful, and instead take time take energy to actually distill out how something you're thinking about could be a failure, and then spending the time to mitigate those outcomes. That really helps you on the path of deciding what the right decision ends up being. The third step, which we haven't hit on yet, is what I refer to in the TEDx talk called check the basics and the reason is, I have had the pleasure of working With some in credibly innovative companies and some high level leaders at these organizations, and I'm flabbergasted sometimes that it's the small details that really trip them up. And what I see time and time again is, the more complex The decision is, the more critical those small details become and the easier they are to overlook. So if you kind of bundle it all together, if you challenge the constraints, you embrace that pre mortem, and then you ensure that the T's are crossed and the i's are dotted and you check the basics. You really put together a more streamlined approach to decision making than I think a lot of us just implement by nature.

John Ryan 18:42
What is it about the small details that trips people up? Is it not taking the time is that the same thing about jumping into action without doing the pre mortem and all the challenging of the conditions

Matt Confer 18:55
are simulations are built so you don't need to create massive Excel spreadsheets are beautiful flowcharts, you really want to focus more on how your team decides how you actually cross functionally or communicate as an intact unit. But teams tend to complicate the situation. They're building these Excel formulas that are tying one spreadsheet to another spreadsheet, and then they might miss an email. So the simulation is sending you emails all of the time. And they might have this grandiose spreadsheet together that's looking at their financial projections. And it's it's beautiful, and it's sexy, and it's robust, but it's an email that one of them just miss because they're so focused on the grandiose details. And so I think what I've at least I've noticed is when the decision gets more complex, the small details are overlooked with more regularity. And I think that's just the human nature approach to as you become more in the weeds. You create more weeds, you have the chance to kind of lose the forest from the trees a little bit.

John Ryan 20:06
So when you're getting into, like, what are the size of the groups, by the way that you're putting through the simulations? Yeah, the

Matt Confer 20:13
total sizes of the groups range anywhere between eight to about 35 per cohort. And then we've had the pleasure of working with some organizations like a Coca Cola put about 350 people through the simulation at one time, we had seven different rooms going so you actually get to see on kind of a large scale, how organizations think about dissecting these problems? Well, that's one of things I was kind of curious about is, where's the line in terms of effectiveness in terms of number of people involved in making a decision and versus being efficient and effective? Is there any correlation that has been identified in terms of optimal sizing? It's such a great question because the thing that our organization is really good grappling with right now is in a pre COVID world, we delivered about 20 to 30% of our simulations fully virtually, and 70%, give or take, we're in the classroom experiences. So kind of the quintessential high potential leadership development program, we're gonna fly everybody to one location or bring everybody into the office and be in a conference room or at a hotel resort. And we're going to spend time actually developing these leaders. Now, obviously, the world has shifted and a new normal necessitates virtual learning. And what we're finding is, organizations are really embracing small group virtual teams because we're all learning how to operate effectively. We're firm believers that you want to train people in a similar way to how they work so that they feel more comfortable kind of to go back to the you train a pilot in a simulator before they get behind the actual jumbo jet. What we're finding is organizations are embracing Virtual Training really because we all need those skills to be honed because we maybe have become a little bit too accustomed to an in person experience and we need to stretch our comfortable limits and grow our muscles in how we actually build consensus in the virtual world.

John Ryan 22:20
Good point yeah, the environment changes and so does the training have to adapt to help you with with those skills as well? So all those things three things you mentioned in terms of creating better decisions really, I think makes sense and just even having the awareness of challenging the constraints don't necessarily be the the dreamer to question what will happen if and how do you adjust for that and and the third one, please forgive me escape my mind which was checking the basics checking the basics. Yeah, the details. The one of the things the stories that you mentioned, that I thought was fascinating about the pre mortem and also the details was the the Cobra effect and Such a huge unintended consequences. I'm not gonna ask you to recreate your entire TED talk here, but you might share a little bit about the the Cobra effect and how that's experienced in everyday life.

Matt Confer 23:13
Yeah, so during the era of colonialization in India, the British government got very concerned about the number of venomous Cobra snakes in Delhi, and they had countless ideas that all kind of failed, nothing really worked. They finally decided to offer a cash bounty for every dead Cobra, which seems like a great idea. And initially, it actually was a pretty successful strategy as a large number of snakes were killed for this new reward. You might though be able to guess what the problem is here. imaginative individuals actually started to breed Cobras explicitly for the income that they could now generate, and it didn't take long the government became aware of And so they actually had to scrap the program for dead Cobras. And you can definitely guess what happens next. Now the Cobra breeders have worthless snakes, so they just set them free. And as a result, the wild Cobra population became even worse than it was initially. And in essence, the solution or the apparent solution for the problem made the situation even worse. So we now actually refer to this as the Cobra effect. But in my estimation, it's kind of the perfect illustration of why a pre mortem is powerful. If you don't anticipate failure, if you don't anticipate how your solution could run a muck, you potentially are going to go down that path without considering the negative consequences or externalities in this case, the British government never ran through the scenarios of how could this actually make the problem worse, had they done that I think they probably would have averted this disaster.

John Ryan 25:00
wouldn't be too many dots to connect to realize that some people would take advantage of this and that possible outcome would be there. But at first glance, if you're up the dreamer mindset, you're not gonna you're not going to catch that that unintended consequence. You know, and I know you and I talked briefly but before we got in the show and the the pandemic that we're experiencing right now, and certainly this isn't a political podcast or show by any means. And and I, you said that you're not hyper involved in politics either. Right now, everyone's making critical decisions, right? We are at a government level, federal level, state level, company level, individual level, you know, like parents are having to decide this month do I send my kid to school? Do I do remote? Are there even options there? What's a appropriate way for parents out there to start thinking through these these situations?

Matt Confer 25:52
The best lens that I can take on it is our clients are large organizations and large university He's all around the world, we've had the pleasure of delivering our simulations in about 30 or so countries in the last two years. And in the February, March, April timeframe of this year, there was a lot of indecision and it was really warranted. People didn't know if they should pause their training and wait for a hopeful return to the office, if they should move fully, virtually, or if they should plan for some sense of a hybrid approach. And we do work with a lot of universities and I can say they were struggling with the same decision that I think parents are struggling with now and school districts are struggling. And what you said there really, you know, resonated and stuck out to me, you almost have to be more nimble than you had to be in the past, the pandemic has thrown a curveball, it's thrown a bit of ambiguity that never could have been anticipated. So what I would say His organizations that we're working with that have been very impressive, in my estimation, are those that are putting in place contingency plans. They're they're almost trying to say, our dream scenario would be this and maybe that's in a return to in classroom experiences in January of 2021. But we know that we have to plan three to six months in advance for these trainings. So we're going to put backup plans in place and actually invest effort in what those logistics are going to look like if we have to pivot from an in classroom to a virtual. I know that's not plausible in all scenarios. But I would say what the pandemic is as pushed forward is think you have to be more prepared for the scenarios that are may be seen as slightly more unlikely. It's almost as it's opened up the framework of what is plausible, and it's forcing people to prepare for really distinctly different outcomes. Depending on how the Global Health components progress,

John Ryan 28:04
so in a way, like in your simulation, watch out for those emails that are coming across while you're working on your spreadsheet and linking spreadsheets and pivot tables are going crazy. Make sure you're up to date on the information so that you can adapt your model because the unlikely is happening. And in the world landscape is changing so quickly on that. So as people get new information, they have to go through they go back through the decision making process, not only individuals but organizations themselves and challenge constraints, go through those three levels dreamer, realist cynic, and then continue to go through the process or what's the best way to go about that?

Matt Confer 28:47
You know, I think it's hard sometimes you don't have the capacity to invest, you know, five to 10 minutes just in making a decision or you don't have two weeks to put in place a framework Get the right stakeholders in the room. And then you have this deadline that sits at some date in the future that you have to decide. Sometimes you really do just have to make a gut decision. The goal of sharing our decision making framework was really to say when you have the opportunity to take the time to invest. The biggest component that I think people miss is they view decisions as very transactional, you have to decide it's one way or the other. It's the fork in the road. I think what makes people and teams more effective and efficient is when you view decisions as strategic opportunities to change course, if necessary, and that does necessitate getting the right stakeholders in order actually having the conversations potentially employing a framework considering you're going to fail, doing the types of things that allow you to view a decision as a strategic component. One thing that we discuss frequently is you have to impose limits, you can't just prolong the decision to infinity. And so many times what we say is in our simulation game, there's a clock. I mean, there's a physical clock ticking down when you're in the simulation engine. But in the real world, sometimes it's really necessary to impose those limits. If you get on a conference call, and there's six people and you have a decision that needs to be made in the next two weeks, put different limits in place by this Friday, we're going to have this decided, then we're going to stress test it next Tuesday, then we're all going to get back together on Thursday. And then we're going to solidify the decision during that Thursday meeting. And we're actually going to make the decision before the Friday deadline put limits in place that forces you forward on your decision making trajectory.

John Ryan 30:51
That makes sense. So there's that that old adage that 80% of a problem is defining or a solution of solving a problem is defining what the problem is that That's probably too much. It's probably too much on the problem definition. But you still have to have that deadline to make sure that you're getting things in line to keep you progressing to make that two week decision, like Like you said, right there. So with your, with all your experience in time watching and experiencing people in in your simulations, what's been the most surprising thing that you have learned witness observed in relation to teams or individuals making decisions.

Matt Confer 31:29
The most surprising thing is, every organization thinks in some way that they are this unique unicorn, which many organizations are and that's what makes them special, the value that they offer to their customers and the value that they offer to their clients, their employees and their other stakeholders. However, they all think that they're this unique unicorn and then when they tell us what they want their future leaders to be able to do. It really does go across industries that what people are looking for is leaders that solicit feedback from the people below them. They build consensus. They deal with their employees in a trusting partnership relationship. They want leaders that are more involved in making sure that the organization is moving forward. They also want leaders who are focused on the financial and strategic implications of the short term decisions that they're making. They want people to take a long term lens with the short term decisions. And then the third thing is I think they really want people to work cross functionally, that's probably if I had to distill the thing that we hear from organizations above all else, is we need to break down the silos between departments. Our legal team doesn't do a good job of talking to HR about something that's coming down the pipeline or our finance team hasn't done a good job of sharing with product or sales, what's going on and how we can cohesively work together? I think that that's what organizations are struggling with as the world has become more complex. And we're dealing with a barrage of emails and notifications and text messages and quarterly reporting and all of these things. It's how do you actually get the whole organization communicating cross functionally and moving towards concise strategic organizational goals?

John Ryan 33:29
Fantastic. Matt, thank you so much for spending the time with us and sharing all your insights and wisdom around decision making. And as we transition into this new economy that we live in, what's the best way for people to find out more about you and ability and to stay in touch and have a conversation?

Matt Confer 33:45
Yeah, thanks, john. I really appreciate it. I'm on all of the social medias at Matthew confor, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram are probably the three that I spend the most time on our organization is called ability. And you can find us if you just type in Ability leadership simulations. You'll drive us right there. And you mentioned it at the onset. We launched a podcast earlier this year called learn to lead. And it's been a wonderful way for us to talk to some of the people in our network about how they developed as a leader and what does it mean to develop the leaders of tomorrow?

John Ryan 34:16
Awesome. Congratulations on your podcasts and all your continued success.

Matt Confer 34:19
Well, thank you very much.

Matt Confer 34:21
To connect with Matt. You can find them on social media and their website . Until next time, develop yourself empower others and lead by example. Thanks for listening to key conversations for leaders with your host john Ryan. If you enjoy the show, please let us know. Give us a rating or write a review if you have a question send me an email to And if you haven't already, you can connect with me on twitter @keyconvo and on LinkedIn under JohnRyanLeadership.

John Ryan

Host of Key Conversations for Leaders Podcast, Executive Coach, Consultant, and Trainer

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