When decisions go awry, we usually experience feelings of regret. We hear talk of unintended consequences, faulty communication, poor training or planning, or "inadequate preparation." Investigations, post-mortems, blame-fests, recriminations, and post-decision conflict ensue. We sometimes reassign or "release" anyone involved in the decision, or we reorganize business units.
Sometimes — rarely — we examine the decision process itself.
Is there not a systematic way of avoiding all this? What would actually be required to reduce the incidence of bad decisions?
As you might expect, there is no simple answer that improves every decision. But there is an approach — a perspective, really — that reduces the probability that any given decision might lead to trouble. I call that approach congruent decision making.
The term congruent comes from the work of psychologist Carl Rogers (1902-1987) and from the work of family therapist Virginia Satir (1916-1988). Although they used the term slightly differently from each other — and different from what I'm proposing here — there is significant overlap between them, and with my usage. Applied to decision making, I take the meaning of congruence to be alignment between the considerations that led to the decision and the overall needs and desires of all affected stakeholders, broadly defined. Notice that for congruence to apply, the decision itself need not be fully aligned with the needs and desires of every stakeholder; rather, it is the set of considerations that underlie the decision that must include the needs and desires of all stakeholders.
For example, a decision process would likely be incongruent if it's kept confidential from some subset of stakeholders, and if it limits or prohibits the transmission of their concerns to the person or people making the decision. But that Incongruent decision processes
have an elevated probability
of producing bad decisionsdecision process would likely be congruent if it included consideration of the concerns of those excluded stakeholders, even if the situation required confidentiality. In that case, the process must include a trusted representative who can express fairly and energetically the concerns of the excluded stakeholders.
The conditions that congruence requires fall into two categories. In this Part I, I propose a framework for ensuring that stakeholders are well informed and free to express their needs and desires without fear of retribution. In Part II, next time, I offer a framework that ensures that when stakeholders do express their needs and desires, they do so forthrightly.
In what follows, the term representatives denotes people authorized and trusted to faithfully and energetically represent the concerns of the stakeholders they represent. Representatives might be needed when the number of stakeholders is more than a few, or when the subject matter of the decision is sensitive and cannot be disclosed to the stakeholders themselves. Representatives have free access to all information relative to the decision.
Criteria ensuring stakeholders' freedom of expression
Here are four criteria that, if satisfied, increase the congruence of decision-making processes.
- Stakeholders or their representatives are fully informed
- Stakeholders or their representatives have access to all information available to the decision team. Moreover, the access they have is equivalent in timeliness and convenience to the access the rest of the decision team enjoys.
- Stakeholder representatives must be equal partners in the decision process. Free access to information for stakeholder representatives is perhaps best illustrated by what is not free access. Bringing a stakeholder representative into the process during a defined time window, usually near the end of the process, to "hear employee concerns" is not free access. Designating a representative long after the decision process is underway, without involving the representative in early discussions, is not free access.
- Stakeholders or their representatives are free to express their concerns
- All stakeholders and representatives are treated equally. Stakeholders or their representatives can register their concerns with the decision team without prejudice or restraint.
- For an example testing equal freedom of expression, compare the treatment of senior management and the treatment of all employees. If either one of these two classes has significantly greater opportunity to express their concerns, it's likely that the decision will be biased toward the favored class, and thus, incongruent with the needs or concerns of the entire set of stakeholders.
- Stakeholders or their representatives are free to ask that the decision include specific elements
- Stakeholders or their representatives are unrestricted with respect to the content of their expression of concerns. They need not confine their comments to issues that affect them directly, or to statements of the effect of the decision on their personal situations. If they feel that the decision at issue should include specific elements, they're free to say so.
- This freedom is necessary because of the difficulty of restricting it without biasing the outcome of the decision process. For example, in a decision regarding process improvement to enhance product quality, if we restrict the comments of employees to, say, ban commentary on issues that affect "quality of work life," then we might unintentionally restrict comments that relate to how quality of work life affects product quality. We thus would be discouraging any investigation of some possibly important factors that compromise product quality.
- Stakeholders or their representatives need not fear retaliation for their participation in the process
- Bias (incongruence) can arise as a result of any hint of coercion in connection with expressions of concerns relative to the decision process or the content of the decision being considered. When stakeholders or their representatives expect retaliation or rejection, they're more likely to withhold comments, or shade them. And that leads to bias and incongruence.
- This freedom is necessary because the decision makers need to know the full consequences of choosing any of the options before them. When stakeholders withhold their comments, or shade them, they conceal the truth.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
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