Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 43;   October 26, 2011: Decisions: How Looping Back Helps

Decisions: How Looping Back Helps

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

Group decision-making often proceeds through a series of steps including forming a list of options, researching them, ranking them, reducing them, and finally selecting one. Often, this linear approach yields disappointing results. Why?
A waterfall and spray cliff in the mountains of Virginia

A waterfall and spray cliff in the mountains of Virginia. The waterfall provides a useful metaphor for the particular decision-making defect we're discussing here. In the linear, beginning-to-ending pattern of decision-making, the group rarely revisits any intermediate conclusions it has made along its path to a final decision. This waterfall process contains no backtracking, and it is thus unable to detect the kinds of environmental changes or perceptual changes that can lead the group to invalidate previous intermediate judgments. Like the water in the waterfall, there is no going back. What's done is done, and that's that. Waterfall decision-making processes are thus vulnerable to environmental or perceptual changes, which are then free to invalidate intermediate results. Photo by Gary P. Fleming, courtesy Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

When groups make decisions about complex questions, they can sometimes approach the problem in a beginning-to-ending fashion that threatens the quality of the outcomes. For instance, in one typical pattern, the group brainstorms alternatives, ranks those alternatives, explores those they regard as the most favorable, ranks them again, and then finally, makes a choice. We use linear patterns like these for everything from hiring to firing, from investing to downsizing — nearly everything.

Just one thing. It doesn't always yield good results.

When the time required for a decision is much shorter than the time scale of changes in the environment, linear decision processes work well. But when the environment — or our knowledge of it — changes rapidly compared to the speed of decision-making, the decision-makers are always working with old news. Their conclusions don't keep pace with reality.

At least two important sources of change threaten the decision process.

Changes in the environment
When the environment changes after the decision process begins, the process can reach a conclusion that was consistent with the pre-change environment, but which no longer fits the environment's new configuration.
Changes in the group's ability to perceive
Groups often acquire new capability during the decision process. They learn, or they abandon old prejudices, or they acquire new members, or they acquire access to new information.

If any of these changes occur during the decision-making process, interim choices made en route to a conclusion can be invalidated without the group's knowledge. Here's a little catalog of items subject to being invalidated.

The problem definition
The inputs When the time required
for a decision is much
longer than the time
scale of changes in the
environment, looping back
to review intermediate
conclusions is essential
to the process include the overall goal as it was understood at the outset, any intermediate goals developed during the process, and any data used for winnowing intermediate alternatives.
Intermediate lists of alternatives
If the group developed lists of alternatives during its process, those lists might not remain valid for the duration of the process. This can occur either because of changes in the problem space, or because of changes in group perceptions. If the group built its conclusions on intermediate decisions that it would not make again with its new, deeper understanding, trouble lies ahead. Trouble also looms if the group built its conclusions on alternatives inferior to those it would now find easily, knowing what it knows now.
The nature of alternatives
Even among recognized alternatives, changes can occur because the attributes of alternatives can evolve, either in reality or in the group's perceptions.

Decision-makers achieve better outcomes if they periodically "loop back" to review intermediate conclusions. When they loop back, they can ensure that the same set of standards and knowledge was consistently applied throughout the process. It's a benefit similar to what we get from re-reading what we've read. Try it. Re-read this article and see what happens. Go to top Top  Next issue: Good Change, Bad Change: I  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenfPisQwhtshXzxJVvner@ChacUYLEiQVcXCoqJzufoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Bottleneck road signWhen Your Boss Is a Micromanager
If your boss is a micromanager, your life can be a seemingly endless misery of humiliation and frustration. Changing your boss is one possible solution, but it's unlikely to succeed. What you can do is change the way you experience the micromanagement.
A team raises a wall of a new home sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban DevelopmentOrganizing a Barn Raising
Once you find a task that you can tackle as a "barn raising," your work is just beginning. Planning and organizing the work is in many ways the hard part.
A spider plant, chlorophytum comosum.What Enough to Do Is Like
Most of us have had way too much to do for so long that "too much to do" has become the new normal. We've forgotten what "enough to do" feels like. Here are some reminders.
Symptoms of Stage 5 heat stress in cattleYou Might Be Stressed If…
A little stress once in a while keeps us sharp, but chronic intense stress shortens lives. Stress can build gradually, out of our awareness. Here are some indicators of chronic intense stress.
Perceptual illusions resulting from reificationThe Reification Error and Performance Management
Just as real concrete objects have attributes, so do abstract concepts, or constructs. But attempting to measure the attributes of constructs as if they were the attributes of real objects is an example of the reification error. In performance management, committing this error leads to unexpected and unwanted results.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A meeting held in a long conference room.Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
A dictionaryAnd on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenfPisQwhtshXzxJVvner@ChacUYLEiQVcXCoqJzufoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.