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Steve Wolf of Applied Decision Science

Steve Wolf is the CEO and co-founder of Applied Decision Science, a field-based research and development company that helps improve the science of making decisions under stress. This work has taken them primarily through the healthcare and military sectors with expertise gained from the work of Wolf and his co-founders, Dr. Gary Klein and Dr. Laura Militello.

How did your business start?

It's really an extension of the work that I was doing when I first graduated from college years ago. I worked with Dr. Gary Klein, a cognitive psychologist who was interested in how people make decisions under very stressful conditions. Gary was interested in real-world problems, not laboratory-based ones.

For example, some of his initial work was based on interviews and observations of wildland firefighters—the folks who you often see on TV, battling these raging forest fires out West. These are real people, making decisions that directly impact the health and safety of a large number of people (including themselves).

How did you come up with the idea for your business?

The goal of Applied Decision Science is to develop tools and training to support people who are making these high-stress, high-stakes kinds of decisions. I saw an opportunity to extend the theory of HOW people make decisions into ways that can help them make BETTER decisions.

And while this is not, in and of itself, a new thought, I believed that my personal experience with information technology could be paired with the science of decision making to bring something new and different to the table.

Then it was a matter of finding the right business partners. I was so fortunate to reconnect with my former colleagues, Gary Klein and Laura Militello, because I have not been a practitioner in the decision-making field for a number of years. They bring current thinking, credibility and enormous personal capability to the business. 

What local resources did you take advantage of and how did they help?

Probably the most critical resource was the Hamilton County Business Development Center, in Norwood. Their purpose is to help nurture new businesses like Applied Decision Science and grow them into organizations that can flourish and eventually help add jobs in the region.

Beyond offering inexpensive office space, meeting rooms, mentoring and other amenities, they also offer access to other small businesses that likely are facing similar challenges. Being able to walk across the hall to chat with another small-business owner to share problems and offer potential solutions is a tremendous value.

What would you do differently if you started your business again?

I don't know that I would do anything differently. And that's not to say that everything has gone perfectly, it's just that encountering failure and making mistakes is part of starting anything new. I'm definitely someone who believes that we learn more from failure than we do from success.

The key is to learn how to fail fast and cheap, so that you can still recover effectively and pivot to a more promising direction.

My time with Craig Wynett in the Corporate New Ventures group at P&G taught me that. Craig and all my colleagues there believed that you needed to rigorously test and re-test business concepts during the formative stages to kill off the weakest ideas and vet the strongest ones for further investment. I've tried to carry that philosophy with me in every business endeavor I've taken on ever since.

What’s next for you and your company?

We're excited to be working on a project right now for the Centers for Disease Control that looks at ways to improve the rates of colorectal cancer screening. Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer related deaths, but screening rates are much lower than the rates for other cancers like breast cancer or cervical cancer. We're just beginning a 24-month effort that is aimed at developing a web-based app that can interface with electronic health records to simplify the access and presentation of information related to colorectal health.

Working through all the challenges of dealing with health information technology is going to be messy, but we really like messy. It should be a lot of fun.

Interview by Sean Peters

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