Decisions, decisions

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I think we all credit ourselves with intelligent decision-making. 

We believe that when confronted with an issue we gather and weigh the relevant evidence (including our own past experiences), test the indicated course of action against other factors (such as available resources, political, legal and policy limitations and so on) and move forward accordingly. When we go through this exercise we generate a degree of confidence of successful outcomes, a sense of the potential risks and some knowledge of level of effort that will be necessary to carry out the chosen approach. 

But are we really so disciplined as all that? Were we ever? What about in today’s highly complex, highly charged and ever-changing environment? Can we be even reasonably sure that we have (effectively) touched all the relevant bases? Indeed, are we quite sure we know what the relevant bases are and where to find them? 

Are we really quite open to information – whether facts or opinions – that could help us reach a good decision? Do we have good mechanisms for challenging or assimilating contrary facts and views that go counter to our emerging views? Do we persevere until we have a very high degree of certainty? Or do we gather and input only until we reach something called “the comfort zone”?  Could there be other factors at work here as well, factors that guide us from the very moment the enquiry commences – or possibly back even further – before we have decided that a decision is needed and we should commence data gathering?  Such a factor could, for example, be where our  views are either clouded or too focused leading us to do selective information gathering. 

If we have any doubts about the veracity of our decision making and fact finding processes, where do we go for guidance?  I obtained some insight and clarification as a result of a presentation at the Public Service Commission (PSC). 

Mark Vale was engaged by the PSC to do some exploratory work on “Knowledge Management” (KM) and what its implications could be for public servants. Mr. Vale explored some of his thoughts and findings with an audience drawn from across government, in the format of an “interim report”. 

In his address he referred to  “value added knowledge processes”. In his model, such processes begin with collecting data, information and knowledge about a particular subject. Then, one organizes and summarizes content. There are then the critical functions of analysis and synthesis to establish a sound and trustworthy foundation for decision-making. Though this was not the principal issue that he reported on, it was of much interest to me.  I immediately set about exploring what would be needed to put Mr. Vale’s model into effect. Quite soon, it became apparent that there would be some challenges. 

To create value and intelligence that can effectively be used in effective decision-making,  data and information managers know that the process has a fundamental pre-condition: requirements, structures, formats and flow must be rigorously defined and managed. Simply stated one does not begin before decision-makers have declared what they need to know.  That demands clear ideas about relevancy and exceptional skills in managing capture, formulation, distribution and use. Without looking at organizations, consider the personal level: do we have the discipline for this? 

Consider the last appliance you bought. Or house. Or vehicle. Did you start with a set of requirements, defined and prioritized? Did you establish variance parameters so you could “bell curve” the variables? Did you match your critical factors to a valuation system so you could weigh high performance on one factor against low on another?  What about the vendors? Did you investigate their qualifications, certifications, integrity, past performance and financial strength? Did you undertake selective interviews to confirm assumptions or “findings” that had emerged in your overview? Or did you write off a whole lot of data because of what you consider  “human nature”, as in: “that won’t work – it just isn’t human nature for people to do that”. 

For most of us the actual is likely somewhat different. I would argue that decision-making, at almost every level of society, is to a high degree subjective and anecdotal. I think we often give little more than a cursory examination of the situation, and move on what “feels right”. We trust out “intuition”. As we learn by experience (which is to say success and failure) we learn to trust our intuitive senses either more or less. We govern ourselves accordingly. Thus a real estate agent who is consistently successful in qualifying house buyers on first glance will continue to trust such instincts. One who has variable success might tend to put more time into checking out the financial facts. We could have said this twenty, or fifty years ago. What about today? Are the challenges for decision makers in a light speed business world different? 

In this “Information Age” where many of us are in the “knowledge business” we are swamped with inputs. Many managers suffer from  “information overload”. Instead of feeling like mushrooms in the dark many feel like mushrooms with too much fertilizer. Electronic networks such as the Internet bring us a wealth of data and information, much of it without the sort of validity filtering that we have come to (maybe erroneously) depend upon. Analysis and synthesis (separating the wheat from the chaff) has assumed mission criticality. With all this going on I sense judgment has become  a more highly prized managerial skill. Today’s managers work on their judgment capability by  sharpening their research and analytical skills and yes, intuitive sense. (This may be one area where the managerial hard and soft sides must meet). 

Successful entrepreneurs thrive on a happy mix of rigorous fact finding and analysis, combined with a well refined sense of what will play and what won’t. And even with a full quiver of such arrows mistakes are still made. How many Hollywood “blockbusters” did not recover their production costs? How many complete failures on the silver screen decades ago are now paying fabulous royalties? 

Is the suggestion here that our individual and collective decision-making is deficient? Only our personal and organizational results can answer that. But I would argue that there is a value in  working with Mark Vale’s process and in developing  more ability on the intuitive (or tacit) side because we all seek the shortest and safest routes.  Perhaps when these routes get published, debated and set down we might try moving them into a “best practices” area. That would be a good start on building a “learning organization” where the skills of one generation are passed on to the next.

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