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The Decisive Moment

During our trip to Paris last week we took the time to visit the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation near Montparnasse. The exhibit on the second floor is dedicated to one hundred twenty odd photographs published in the 1952 collection “The Decisive Moment”.[1]  The beauty and the orginality of this work sparked a generous debate over the existence of “decisive moments”. Are there rare, specific points in time when everything seems to fall in place? Are these the fleeting moments that define important decisions, spawn innovation, and make leaders great?

The debate over exactly what is meant by “decisive moments” has raged ever since. On one hand, authors like André Breton have argued that decisive moments arise out of the chaos of the constant succession of social, economic, and political events.[2] New ideas and singular opportunities are hidden in the contradictions and convergence of economic imperatives, technological development, and the evolution of the media and communication. Opportunity knocks for those that can make sense of the “weak” patterns inherent in “objective chance”. True leaders and innovators are born in those rare occurences where the paths of progress appear.

Others argue that great decisions require more than simply being in the right place at the right time. If leadership is just a question of chance, why do some people make better decisions than others, why do so many miss these opportunities? Seizing the moment requires that we recognize the opportunity, and use the context to bring experience into focus. Leadership and innovation are not born out of casual observation of organizations and markets, but out of active immersion, engagement and questionning of culture, processes and technology. “Decisive moments” are the fruit of composition and alignment. Picture-perfect opportunities don’t just happen, they are the results of the constant practice of analytics.

Decisive moments arise out of our conscious attempts to create balance, simplicity, and unity out of the apparent ambiguity, uncertainty, and contradictions of our daily challenges. Henri Cartier-Bresson said as much in the preface to his own work. He quotes Cardinal de Retz (b.1613 – d.1679) suggesting “that there is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment and the masterpiece of leadership is to know and seize this moment". He explains that in order to “give meaning” to the world around us, we must feel part of the problems we aim to resolve. He concludes that photography, like all visual communication, is a means of focusing on the essential, not proving or asserting one’s own talent.[3] Decision-making isn’t an innate skill, it’s a a deliberate lifestyle.

Improving managerial decision making is the objective of the Business Analytics Institute. The Institute focuses on five applications of data science for managers: working in the digital age, managerial decision making, machine learning, community management, and visual communications. In our Master Classes in Europe, as well as our Summer School in Bayonne, we explore the skills and methods that can improve decision-making in your organization. You will how to evaluate the data at hand, how to apply the appropriate methodologies to specific types of business challenges, and how to transform data into collective action.


[1] Cartier-Bresson, H., Images a la Sauvette (The Decisive Moment.) Texts and photographs by Cartier-Bresson, 1952, Simon & Schuster, New York

[2] Breton, A., Maniesto of Surrealism, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016 (originally published in 1924)

[3] Suler, J. , The Psychology of the "Decisive Moment", Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche, Website