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 essentialto 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. Top Next Issue
Are 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 welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenJengpdZXtyjjzcXmner@ChacgxPEEqEhGRsrWbEtoCanyon.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.
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.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Take Any Seat: I
- When you attend a meeting, how do you choose your seat? Whether you chair or not, where you sit helps
to determine your effectiveness and your stature during the meeting. Here are some tips for choosing
your seat strategically.
- An Emergency Toolkit
- You've just had some bad news at work, and you're angry or really upset. Maybe you feel like the target
of a vicious insult or the victim of a serious injustice. You have work to do, and you want to respond,
but you must first regain your composure. What can you do to calm down and start feeling better?
- Illusory Incentives
- Although the theory of incentives at work is changing rapidly, its goal generally remains helping employers
obtain more output at lower cost. Here are some neglected effects that tend to limit the chances of
achieving that goal.
- Coping and Hard Lessons
- Ever have the feeling of "Uh-oh, I've made this mistake before"? Some of these oft-repeated
mistakes happen not because of obstinacy, or stupidity, or foolishness, but because the learning required
to avoid them is just plain difficult. Here are some examples of hard lessons.
- Solutions as Found Art
- Examining the most innovative solutions we've developed for difficult problems, we often find that they
aren't purely new. Many contain pieces of familiar ideas and techniques combined together in new ways.
Accepting this as a starting point can change our approach to problem solving.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenpzlpvqzAlgGdtfACner@ChacPRIjqJjYBgWPRMTpoCanyon.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:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, USD 11.95)
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, USD 28.99)
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
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.