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Team Decision Making

The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.


Managers often need to reach decisions as a part of a team; either as:

  • a member of a management team
  • a facilitator of their own team

In both cases, it will serve you well to understand some of the do’s and don’ts of team decision-making*.

Group Think

In the 1970s, the social psychologist Irving Janis examined how groups make decisions. He found that the group’s dynamic often inhibits exploration of alternatives. People find disagreement uncomfortable, so the group seeks consensus before it is properly ready. As the group approaches consensus, dissenting voices are rejected (and, indeed, often self-censored). Janis said:

‘Concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive group that it
tends to over-ride realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.’

When we fall prey to Group Think, decisions tend to be based on ‘what we all know’ – members feel inhibited from challenging the consensus and relevant information, ideas, challenges are not fully introduced.

The group tends to a higher collective confidence in a decision than individuals have in the same decision made individually. Groups tend to endorse higher risk decisions than the individuals would – perhaps due to the degree of confidence resulting in group members agreeing to decisions that they would not make as individuals. This is called Risky Shift’.

Other features of Poor Group Decision-Making

People with more extreme positions are more likely than others to have clear arguments supporting their positions and are also most likely to voice them. This enhances risky shift.

The order in which people speak can also affect the course of a discussion. Earlier comments are more influential in framing the discussion and moulding opinions.

Once people have expressed an opinion in a group, it can be hard, psychologically, for them to change their mind.

Charismatic, authoritative and trusted individuals can also skew the debate around their perspectives – which will not always be objective or ‘right’.

Finally, it takes time for a group to discuss a topic and time is often at a premium. There will be pressure to curtail discussion and move to a decision.

Towards Better Group Decisions

  1. Start with a diverse team.
  2. Don’t let leaders, experts or charismatic individuals state their opinions or preference up front
  3. Start with a round robin of facts, data and evidence. Follow up with another round robin of comments, questions and interpretations of that evidence. This forms a solid base for discussions.
  4. If you must take a vote, put it off until after discussion and then ideally, do a secret ballot to establish the balance.
  5. Appoint a devil’s advocate to find flaws in data and arguments.
  6. Before a decision is finalised, ask everyone to take the position of a critical evaluator and look for errors, flaws and risks.
  7. Divide the team into subgroups to discuss the issues, and have them debate the decision.
  8. Invite outsiders into the team to create greater diversity of thinking and overcome prejudices and confirmation bias.
  9. Give all team members equal access to raw data, so they can reanalyse it for themselves.
  10. Facilitate the discussion to ensure every voice is heard and respected – even the least senior and least forceful members of the group. If they deserve their place in the group, consider their perspectives to be of equal value.

Further Reading 

  1. The Decision-making Pocketbook
  2. The Wisdom of Crowds

* Grammatical Note

To apostrophise do’s or not?

  • In favour of not apostrophising is that it is neither a contraction nor a possessive term, suggesting that there is no good grammatical reason for introducing an apostrophe
  • In favour of the apostrophe is the core function of punctuation to improve readability. The apostrophe stops it being dos and don’ts.

We sometimes forget that grammatical and punctuation ‘rules’ evolved to codify standard usages, but that language is fluid and grammar must serve the primary purpose of aiding communication.

By the way, you’ll see that I did not apostrophise 1970s.

If you think I should either have written dos, or found an alternative (thus subordinating words and meaning to style and correctness)… Sorry.

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Decision Making

The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.


In understanding decision-making, there are three key things to focus on:

  1. Using a structured process
  2. The role of intuition, gut instinct and hunches
  3. The effects of bias and automatic thinking

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Structured Decision Making Process

… like the example below.

Structured Decision Process

One of the most important choices in your decision process will be whether to go for an adversarial process of setting the options against one another – perhaps even having advocates for each, competing with one another to win the decision – or to go for a process of inquiry, learning as much as you can before assessing the options.

Intuition

Although Malcolm Gladwell received a lot of attention for his book Blink, his work leans heavily on the research by Gary Klein and his books, The Power of Intuition and the more technical Sources of Power are first rate.  Klein shows how, in domains that are very complex and in which you have extensive experience, your intuition can quickly get you to the right understanding, well ahead of your ability to explain why or how you reached the conclusion you did.  But, if you don’t have sufficient experience, then your hunches are likely to be wrong, due to the existence of…

Bias and Automatic Thinking

Two psychologists, Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky, were responsible for overthrowing the crude assumption that economics is based on rational decisions.  In fact, they showed that many decisions are a result of automatic thinking and biases.  The automatic thinking is a short cut that works well in the domains in which humans evolved, but leads frequently to wrong answers in a modern world context.  An example is the ‘horns and halo effect’ and another is our bias towards noticing examples that confirm what we believe to be true, whilst being blind to counter examples.  Daniel Kahnemann wrote the wonderful ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ to summarise a life’s research and it is, without a doubt, one of the most important and stimulating reads of the last few years.

Further Reading

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Learning Decision Making from Dr House

At its best, television can inspire and educate.  It can also make us think.  Some of us mourn the loss of House from free to air TV in the UK – ho hum: there are always DVDs.

So what can you learn from House?  Masses, it seems and there is even a book ‘House and Philosophy’ to guide you.  It is part of the Blackwell philosophy and pop culture series.

Introducing Dr House

image For those who didn’t catch the US drama series, House is an ornery, arrogant, self-centred and devious doctor who specialises in diagnosing and treating the most mysterious of cases that come into his hospital.

He is played by Hugh Laurie, about whom one American writer said: ‘does a terrific job with his British accent on Jeeves and Wooster.’

.

Don’t Care

House appears not to care about his patients – his concern is for solving the case.  Whilst there are episodes with exceptions to this rule, a distinct illustration of this is when he risks brain damage to a boy in order to find the evidence that will allow him to save the boy’s life.  When challenged about this, he replies to the effect that he does not worry about things he cannot do anything about.

Agent Regret

For most of us, however, the consequences of our decisions weigh heavily.  Regardless of our intention, if the outcome is bad, we have to live with the guilt.  This is known to philosophers as ‘agent regret’.  For House, the ends entirely justify the means, but it works both ways.

Moral Luck

If House makes a wrong decision – or indeed one of his subordinates does – it is not enough, for him, to hide behind ‘we followed procedure’.  In judging responsibility, it is again the outcome that matters.

A Good Decision

When we think about decision-making in organisations, we talk about a ‘good decision’ as one that can be defended.  It requires three things:

  1. The decision maker or makers have the authority and expertise to make the decision
  2. The decision maker or makers have the best information available
  3. The process that the decision maker or makers follow is sound – it is transparent, logical, and fair

But a good decision is not the same as the right decision.  We require good decisions, because they appear to maximise our chances of getting it right.  But we also require them, because we cannot require that all decisions are right.

How much do your decisions matter?

Agent Regret seems to me to be a fancy philosophers’ phrase for conscience.  Knowing about it can have two effects:

  • It could freeze you to the spot and stop you making a decision
  • It could galvanise you to take just a little more time to look for one more fact, or conduct one more test, before finally saying ‘go’.

So here’s the deal

Of course, when House takes the latter course, it usually works out.  Real life is rarely as obliging.  But even so, what is there to lose if you make one last check?

Management Pocketbooks you may enjoy

9781870471763

The Decision Making Pocketbook will give you a sound process and a range of useful tools to help you make your decisions.  They won’t prevent Agent Regret if you get it wrong, but they will limit your regret to the consequences, rather than ignorance or negligence.

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