‘How we make the decisions that matter’ and applying this at work

This blog is inspired by recently re-listening to the podcast of an RSA event where Steven Johnson (author of ‘Farsighted’) talks about ‘How we make the decisions that matter’.  We’d encourage you to give it a go – it’s a fascinating discussion on current research into what brings about really effective decision making.   We think it has real relevance for the workplace too, including how proposed changes are approached.

Just a bit of background first on the ideas discussed in this RSA session…

Steven Johnson explores the methods used for making complex decisions and gives an example of a pros and cons list being used by Darwin in the 1830s – the fact that we still use this method to approach complex decisions nowadays shows, he suggests, that the science of making complex decisions is stagnant. He also considers that decisions that really matter shouldn’t be made by instinct or gut feel.  How do we go about it then?

According to Johnson, it’s inevitable that complex decision making needs to involve some unpredictable elements and the challenge is that it’s difficult for any decision maker to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him or her!

Research shows that for most decision makers, in the crucial early mapping stages they don’t seek out alternatives, they simply focus on asking ‘should we do this or not?’. In contrast, where the decision maker has looked at a whole range of options early on, so that the question becomes ‘which one?’, the decision eventually reached is more likely to be successful in the long term.

      “…diverse decision-making groups make better choices…”

Ultimately, diverse groups are more creative and make more informed decisions. This is of course one of the arguments for embracing diversity in the workplace, aside from legal obligations.  Johnson talks about diversity in a broad sense:  intellectual, gender, ethnicity, class/background and age.  He insists that diverse decision-making groups make better choices, bringing a broader map of values, experiences and interests to the decision-making process.  Johnson insists that a key advantage of embracing the eclectic views of a diverse group at the early planning stage is that things will be imagined which you might otherwise never see – you’ll be making up a list of things that would never otherwise have occurred to you.

What does this mean for the workplace?

There are other stages of decision making explored in the RSA session, but the importance of embracing a diverse and broad group of influence early on in the mapping stage is particularly relevant for the workplace.

We’ve been thinking about this approach in the context of consulting with employees about proposed change, for example, in a restructure/redundancy scenario. The traditional approach in terms of decision mapping in this scenario is for a manager/managers to 1) identify the business need (e.g. to cut costs) and 2) come up with a plan to most effectively achieve that.

Normally, only once these two stages have been completed is the ‘proposal’ put to the affected group of employees for their input, i.e., for consultation. This effectively amount to ‘This is what we need to achieve (the overall challenge we’re facing) and this is how we think we should achieve that. Over to you now to try to persuade us we’re wrong…and by the way, we obviously won’t make any final decisions until you’ve had your say…’.

This approach is okay in legal terms, but is it really helping you to reach the most effective decision?

Applying Steven Johnson’s concept that diverse groups make better decisions, there is undoubtedly more diversity and breadth of experience and ideas across your workforce than in the much smaller management teams putting together the ‘proposals’.

Taking a fresh approach to the decision mapping stage could look like this:

– Whoever normally formulates the proposal (e.g. management team, if you still have that type of structure) focuses first on clarifying what the organisation needs to achieve, i.e. what’s the driver for change (e.g. cost cutting);

– Embracing the concept that diverse groups make better decisions, share the overall objective with everyone who might be affected, or even everyone within the organisation (if that seems appropriate);

– With a truly open mind, seek collective ideas and input on how the organisation could meet its overall objective, without putting forward one ‘proposal’ for consultation. You might be positively surprised by what you get back. You should then have a range of options and ideas to choose from, some of which might not have occurred to the original proposal makers (who will still make the final decision if that is your organisational approach).

The other advantage of seeking employees’ input at an early stage is that you can’t pre-empt everyone’s personal circumstances and preferences.   Employees might be prepared to do things you wouldn’t have anticipated, e.g, changing their hours, pay or stepping forward for voluntary redundancy (or something else entirely).

We all talk increasingly about moving towards a workplace culture of adult to adult relationships, not treating employees as children.  If we trust someone enough to do the job we’ve recruited them for, shouldn’t we then trust them enough to have valid ideas to feed in at the early stage of a decision making process?

Our experience of clients taking this approach has been positive. Whilst some employees ultimately lost their jobs, feedback has been received that overall it was a positive and inclusive process which reached the best outcome. It makes employees feel that their views are valued and respected and those who remain in the organisation are likely to feel more on board with the way forward.

As well as employment relations benefits for involving your teams in decision mapping at an early stage, ultimately it could mean better decisions where those decisions really matter.

Our comment

Applying Johnson’s research to the workplace, if you make decisions from a whole range of options contributed by a diverse and committed work force, this should lead to better decisions in the long term. If your organisation is genuinely purpose and values driven, with most of its people committed to that overall purpose, you have the very best resource to call on – we encourage you to use it.