Harvard Dr. Julia Minson on the Importance of Making Snap Decisions

We all face a multitude of decisions in our everyday lives.

Some more important than others, but all having a direct impact on the way in which we live day to day and inevitably, the direction our lives take us. The importance of being able to make big decisions under stressful situations was a key test of this year’s 2018 Canadian rendition of Infiniti Engineering Academy, which took place during the Formula One Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal June 7th – 10th.

The Infiniti Engineering Academy is in its 5th year and is a global search for some of the best young engineering talent in the world. It offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work within automotive and Formula 1 on a unique and thrilling 12-month placement. Over 120 applicants, made up of recent graduates and university students from across the country applied in 2018.  10 finalists were flown to Montreal to compete in the first day of the two-day challenge.


We had the chance to sit down and chat with Dr. Julia Minson, a professor at Harvard University (who got her PHD at Stanford) and a decision making science specialist. She partnered with the Infiniti Engineering Academy to bring her ground-breaking expertise in the area of decision making to this years competition as both a judge and facilitator.

How did you get involved with the Infiniti Engineering Academy?
When Infiniti reached out to me, they envisioned my involvement as two-fold. Everybody they bring in to the finals are already very accomplished engineers – but then they have to work on a team with people from all over the world, often who are senior to them, in a very fast paced environment where there’s a ton of data coming in that they have to process and decide what to do with very quickly. The ability to make decisions under pressure and advocate for your ideas, while listening to other people’s ideas, is something that you can’t evaluate with an engineering exam. I help Infinity sift through candidate’s ability to make decisions during this initial selection process. Part two is using the axis Infinity created to the candidates to advance their own research. There were thousands of people in Infinity’s initial pool of candidates so we sent them online surveys asking them for their judgements about a variety of things, which we followed up with one-on-one interviews today, not for the purposes of the selection, but to just understand how they think about decision making. How they approach problems and why they do the things they do. So they’re sort of advancing Infinity’s decision making roles as far as candidate selection and the advancing’s for basic science which I think is really exciting to do both of those at the same time. Honestly, I was very impressed with the fact that they thought let’s turn to a top university to find somebody who can help us with this problem.

What gave you the spark to pursue this field more in depth?
Making decisions is something we do all day long, right? You get up in the morning and you have to choose what shoes to put on your feet – that’s a decision. When you buy a house, when you decide whether to marry your significant other, that’s a decision. Investments are decisions. I mean, medical procedures are decisions. It’s all around us, and people are not that good at it. I just think it’s a fascinating area because there’s two parts to it: what people really do and then what people should do and the sort of disconnect between those two things is really interesting. I am never bored!

You talk about how collaborative decision making isn’t always the best. Are there instances where collaborative decision making can provide a better outcome?
There’s nothing wrong with collaborative decision making – the problem is how we go about it. Most of the time people have this idea that two heads are better than one. But what tends to happen is that we go into conversations that become completely unstructured. How are we going to combine your ideas and my ideas? We saw this a lot today with the candidates making their decisions. The first speaker’s ideas usually carry the conversation. Maybe it’s not a good idea and eventually gets shot down, but you’ve just spent an hour discussing this idea. So there’s this very strong influence of whoever talks first. People don’t realize that if you’re trying to really collaborate you need to find a way to get all the thoughts out of all the people. Not just the loud people, not just the overconfident people, not just the powerful people, or the male people, or the extraverted people: everybody.

Is decision making a skill that you can improve on? If so, how?
Yes! Decision science is interesting because people make poor choices in systematic and predictable ways. The experiments we run are sort of designed to say that under these decisions, here is a common mistake that people make. Once you know the common mistake, then you try not to make it, or try to create situations where it’s harder to make that mistake. I would say the number one trick of improving decision making is understanding those biases. Understanding what are these fast, intuitive, shortcuts that our brains take that lead us astray. Daniel Kahneman’s book called Thinking Fast and Slow is sort of like the Bible of what we know about thinking. Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely, and How We Know What Isn’t So by Thomas Gilovich are also great – they’re written for normal people who want to understand their own thinking.

You have to become honestly accountable with yourself about your own decision making. Most of the time once the decision is made and we run with it, we never really revisit it and say “what would have happened if I had done the other thing?” Then, If things turn out well we say, “wasn’t that wonderful? I’m so smart” and if things turn out badly we say, “oh well, you know I still think that was the right choice, except for (things that happened) that I couldn’t have predicted.” Something as simple as writing down your important decisions and your reasoning and reviewing it after a period of time can give insight into, “what do I do,” “what do I do that are things that get me into trouble on a regular basis?”

If you could provide basic advice for a young professional, in terms of in the workforce and their daily lives, what would that be?
I would say that most of us are entirely too confident in our beliefs and in our opinions. Most of us think that we are just about as Liberal or Conservative as we want to be. We think that we are just about as concerned with the environment as a reasonable person should be. We think we spend roughly the right amount of time at work vs. with our families. We sort of don’t question our choices very much and I think bad decision making comes from those assumptions. A lot of conflict comes from assuming that you’ve got it right and the people who deviate from the way you do it have it wrong. I think more self-doubt is a really good prescription.

What do you think will set up this year’s winner for success in their new role in Infinity’s technical partnership with Renault Sport F1 team?
Really thinking about it as a good learning opportunity rather than an opportunity to show off.  I teach college and graduate students and they all think that wherever they are right now is the end all and be all. They forget life is long and this is just the beginning of their career. I think that these guys have an amazing opportunity to learn as long as they focus on the learning and taking it all in, asking questions, absorbing what’s around them, that’s how they’ll get the most out of it.


Renault Sport Formula 1 Driver – Carlos Sainz (left) 2018 Infiniti Engineering Academy Winner – Chase Pelletier (middle) Director Global Motorsport and Performance Projects at Infiniti Motor Company LTD. – Tommaso Volpe (right)

The Infiniti Engineering Academy winner in 2018 was Chase Pelletier, a recent graduate from the engineering program at University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) in Oshawa, Ontario.  Chase will be off to the UK starting the next phase of his exciting journey in September 2018.