Zen and the Art of Decision making

 In his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the late Robert Pirsig, an American writer and philosopher, outlines two distinct schools of thought and explores the notion of ‘quality’. In this article, I want to talk about Pirsig’s ideas that may resonate with MBA students and leaders in business.

Pirsig argues, just like motorcycle maintenance, decision making can be either pleasurable or joyless depending on the individual, and what they expect the outcome to be. It all depends on the attitude.

These two areas of decision making are recognisable today in business. Leaders either ‘enjoy the moment’ of decision making, establishing ‘intuitive’ rulings or leaders find decision making tedious, making verdicts based on hard evidence and facts, paying close attention to every trivial detail. However, it is not black and white as in every organisation, there are many leaders who display characteristics alluding to both these ideas. The suggestion of a middle ground is also reinforced by Pirsig in his book.

If we translate Pirsig’s views about the middle ground to business, the argument here would consist of acknowledging how areas - such as technology - would pollute the ‘romantic view’, that is, a view with emphasis on emotion. However, seeing the beauty in technology can lead to better decision making. This implies that making decisions based on evidence not only can potentially lead to better results, but also can have the same pleasurable emotions as making an ‘intuitive decision’.

Then Pirsig, like many Greek philosophers have in the past, tries to define ‘quality’ and what makes a ‘good’ decision. He argues that there must first be a distinction between ‘truth’ and ‘quality’ and although he doesn’t come to define ‘quality’, he comes close by stating it is about perceptions and using wisdom and education to make a well-informed decision. In business, where decisions are important, the ‘quality’ of the decision is based upon the knowledge of the desired outcome and the post hoc rationalisation of the situation.  

This reasoning can be also put into the perspective of an MBA student. The student will have had an exposure to technical and qualitative teaching, which they will draw upon to make decisions. Just like how someone will learn about motorcycle maintenance to fix problems with his or her bike. In business, every decision that is made is situationally specific, and what makes a 'good' decision lies in what happens next and what effects it has.

Pirsig talks about two opposing schools of thought, one rational and one romantic. There are positives and negatives to be taken from both philosophies, however, in terms of decision making, Pirsig argues that a combination of rationality and romanticism is a pre requisite to qualitative and ‘good’ decision making.

The trick is to find the right balance.