Monday, January 08, 2007

Decision-Making and the boy who cried wolf

Recently a friend of mine, Matt Peace, turned me on to the Harvard Business Review Ideacast series.  Ideacast is a great biweekly series of podcasts that include book reviews, interviews with notables, and "lessons learned" from recent business events.

Working backward from the current podcast I hit on number 6 which caught my attention.  Its from July, 2006.

How Your Company Can Make Better Decisions: In this look at organizational decision-making in light of Merck & Co - Vioxx experience, Harvard Business School Professor David Garvin offers an improved prescription for company decision-making.

Okay, I have to admit I was clueless that there was a problem, but Garvin makes some great observations:

  • Decision-making is not punctiliar, it doesn't happen it a single point in time.  "Decision-making is an extended social process"  Decision-making in an organization always involve multiple people at multiple strata of an organization.  Sometimes decision-making generates its own momentum over time.  Because of this it is not always possible to truly know when a decision has been made.
  • Because of this momentum contrarian view points are often suppressed intentionally or unintentionally.
  • To protect the organization, minority views need to be actively supported by leaders.
  • Decision-making processes should actively stimulate dissent.  Assign people in the decision-making process to be active contrarians. 
  • Assign people to create multiple options or alternatives. Options present decision-makers from the blinder of a "go/no-go" solution set and broaden discussion.  Decisions shouldn't be framed in a "should we do action A or not."  They should be framed as, "here is the issue and A, B or C are suitable solutions.

Here is some advice to managers for creating better decision-making within their organization:

  1. Companies have decision-making cultures.  These cultures help or hinder good decision-making.  We need to understand our corporate cultures and encourage positive characteristics.
  2. Encourage constructive conflict but not dissent for its own sake.  Get multiple alternatives and minority viewpoints.
  3. The leader shouldn't open a meeting with his own viewpoint.
  4. Decision the decision-making process to periodically surface different points of view.
  5. Strive for transparency.  The best decision-making process happen where everyone understands the rules of the game and information is shared up front.
  6. Encourage trouble-makers in your organization.  Andy Grove from Intel calls them "helpful Cassandras."  These are those who are regularly cry wolf, say the sky was falling, etc.  Grove actively sought these people out to be part of the decision-making process.  He found they always helped lead to better decisions.

This is great advice for Christian organizations.  Frequently, in the name of "constituted authority," "being on the same page" or "God's will" dissenting viewpoints, contrarians and minority view points are suppressed.  Decision-making is paralyzed in these contexts out of fear of being "rebellious."  Good decision-making requires openness, honesty, listening-skills and compassion.  These are traits Christian organizations should have in abundance.


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