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In complex decision making, who gets the D?

The first of many lessons the Brexit debacle is teaching us is that complex problems cannot be reduced to binary choices. Determining the future of intricate webs of trade deals, financial interdependencies and delicately-balanced alliances is not a simple yes/no, in/out matter.

A second lesson is that such complex decisions should not be delegated to a larger population who have not had the opportunity to deeply interrogate the issues and become acquainted with some body of evidence, I hesitate to say ‘facts’. On the whole, the public elects officials to do that level of forensic inquiry on their behalf.

A third is that leaders are only storing up trouble for later by bowing to pressure to placate a small ‘core group’ of powerful lobbyists – but that’s a matter for a separate blog.

Inevitably, as I go about coaching Boards and senior leaders to improve their governance policies and decision-making abilities, recent events in the political sphere make me wonder about their equivalents in the corporate world.

 

Mantling over the ‘D’

Typically in business, delegating to all employees such strategic decisions as who to align with and what deals to negotiate would be considered an abdication of leadership, a major dereliction of duty on behalf of the CEO and his team. True or (more likely) not, there is often an assumption amongst senior managers that they have a wider view of the problem space and more strategic experience to bring to bear, and thus they should hold the single-point-of-authority, the “D”. For this reason alone a disproportionate amount of decision-making authority tends to get hoarded at the top of the organisation. Indeed with executives mantling over their hard-won Ds, the challenge more often is to persuade leaders to trust enough to delegate at all.

 

I’m sorry I haven’t a clue

At the same time, ironically, many of the problems that vie for executive attention filter their way up the business hierarchy because no single individual, team or function can make the decision alone. This may well be because the problem is an ‘adaptive’ rather than a technical one. Perhaps it involves strategic choices for which no quantitative analysis can provide solutions; or it requires changes to values, beliefs, cultural norms; or it concerns ethical dilemmas for which no right answer exists. I call this dynamic ironic because, despite the complexity of the problem, the filtering upwards mechanism means that a smaller and smaller group ultimately become responsible for the decision, and may be many removes from the problem and the implications of alternative solutions at that. The very complexity of issue, therefore, can result in a smaller, less well-informed, pool of decision-makers being responsible for it.

 

Avoiding the seduction of simplicity

On the question of decision ownership then, we have a conundrum. If a complex problem is delegated to everyone to resolve, it may get hugely and dangerously simplified in order to make it manageable, the ultimate expression of which is the binary in/out Brexit vote. Any valuable expertise that might improve the decision quality is diluted, (or even overtly diminished, contradicted and dismissed). If instead the problem is reserved for a small cadre of powerful individuals, who may be distant from the problem and not representative of those affected by problem or solution, the decision may well be biased and the outcome unlikely to adequately solve the problem or reflect the needs of all concerned. The expert insight again gets lost along the way. In many ways this is the crux of the ‘wicked problem’ – partial ‘solutions’ lead to new unforeseen consequences that in turn create new problems.

 

Democratizing decision-making

So how do we decide how decisions are made and by whom? What processes should be adopted to match the complexity of the issue with the decision-making capability of those directly involved with or affected by the decision? Technology can go a long way to help here and certainly the potential for mass engagement on complex issues, through on-line polling, surveying, quant analysis and AI exists as never before. But more systemic thoughtful design is also needed – to ask the right questions in the first place and draw on relevant expertise appropriately; to step up above the knee-jerk desire to move to action, and pause to ask how best to manage the process. Hardly rocket science; more a matter of will and intent than capability in most instances, whether in business or in politics. By paying attention to, and designing, more fit-for-purpose, sophisticated forms of decision-making process and using technology well, perhaps we can do more to democratize ownership of both problems and solutions, and give people in society and in business more responsibility for making well-informed decisions in complex problem spaces. Perhaps they’ll own the decisions then too.

 

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