decision processOne of the value propositions for Knowledge Management is to improve decision-making. At a recent Toronto KM Consortium meeting, we agreed to study whether KM actually achieves this objective.

When we looked for a model of the decision-making process, one that seemed especially intriguing, in light of recent controversies about its authors’ decision-making skill, was that used by NASA, illustrated in the table at right.

Whether we decide instinctively (whether to flee or fight), rationally (what laptop to buy), or morally, aesthetically or emotionally (who to vote for in the next election), or using some combination of the above, we do tend to follow this process. Our decision criteria can be objective or subjective. The process can be one-pass or iterative, formal or informal. In some cases we ‘back into’ the process — making a possibly impulsive decision and then attempting to justify or test it by going back through the process. The facts and assessment of unknowns can be exhaustive and methodical or cursory, often depending on the importance of the decision and the consequences of making the wrong one, though I’ve heard more than one CEO pride himself on his ability to make fast decisions with incomplete information, even if better information was available.

Some of us are prone to groupthink — unduly influenced by the preferences of others, even if those preferences are uninformed, illogical or volatile — you see this often in election campaigns.

There are different styles of weighing alternatives, too. Some prefer to find consensus, and consult extensively with others whose judgement they trust — recent studies indicate, with the benefit of hindsight, that such an approach yields superior decisions. Others take an adversarial, black-hat or ‘devil’s advocate’ position to try to get opposing perspectives before making decisions. In his new book, the Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki cites the importance of careful design of a decision-making or advisory group (most critically that they be informed, representative of different stakeholders and perspectives, and independent thinkers).

We tend to be influenced differently by others in the decision-making process, depending on our personal values and our position in the organization or group — some of us are deeply influenced by others’ authority (status or education), reputation, or trustworthiness (which means peers’ views get more weight than either superiors’ or subordinates’).

Inaccurate, incomplete or biased research or debate can also produce inappropriate decisions — some of us are more aware of ‘spin‘ in what we read and hear than others. Marketers have perfected techniques that range from manipulative to dishonest to influence customer buying decisions. And as these fall from favour, subtler, more subversive techniques — like story-telling — are taking their place. Some legal decisions are considered so critical that there is a special standard of fairness — “due process’.

Technology sometimes gives us the opportunity to defer making decisions and keep many options open until more facts are available and the risk of decision error drops — rapid prototyping for example.

Here are four brief stories about decisions, that reveal good and bad decision-making processes:

  1. A friend of mine was hiring for a research-analyst position. There were three excellent candidates, but all four interviewers rated a tall, well-spoken, attractive, well-dressed young man as their clear choice. The word three of them used to describe his superior je ne sais quoi was ‘presence’. It turned out presence was all he had — his research skills were questionable, and the interviewers later kicked themselves for not looking more closely at his sample work-product before hiring him. Before he could be hired, he quit for a much higher-paying job in PR, a job he had no credentials for, and where he is now Vice President.
  2. A colleague was trying to decide between two new house models. He and his wife were each leaning slightly towards a different choice. He drew up a chart listing all the buying criteria they cared about, weighted each criterion and rated each house on each criterion. The house his wife preferred got a higher total score, but my colleague wasn’t convinced. He kept trying to rig the numbers or weights to change the scores, but couldn’t do it, so he relented and they bought the house his wife preferred. A year later he was delighted with the decision, and couldn’t understand how he was attached to the other house at all.
  3. A woman I know was going out with two guys, and was under growing pressure to make a decision. All her friends preferred Guy A, with whom she shared many interests, over Guy B, who spoke little English and with whom she had almost nothing in common. She chose Guy B anyway, citing ‘pure chemistry’, and eventually married him. Twenty-five years later, it was obviously the right choice — they’re still together and very happy.
  4. A small Canadian company was successfully courted by a foreign company that appeared, on the surface, to be a perfect tactical fit — the Canadian company had great products and R&D, while the foreign company had lots of cash and market presence around the world. Five years later everyone from the Canadian company was gone and all that was left was a warehouse. The strategies and cultures of the two companies, it was clear in hindsight, were completely incompatible.

This year, Canadians and Americans will both decide on a new federal government. The electoral process in both countries is badly flawed, the electorate is largely ignorant of the issues, and is being deliberately misled by campaign advertising, while the media, in typical fashion, are oversimplifying many of the choices and completely disregarding others. The only thing we know for sure is that, in both countries, more people will consciously decide not to vote than will vote for any of the alternatives. I wonder what that tells us about The Wisdom of Crowds?

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  1. who do you think you have great influence in their decision process?? i mean with your post in this

  2. Michael says:

    Another fascinating post, Dave. I think another aspect of marketing and campaigning that I would love to hear your thoughts on is that of image. For example, on billboards, I’ve noticed that real estate signs will try to invoke an emotion from the image–a picture of a smiling family insinuates that your family will be happy in our home; a picture of a husband romantically nuzzling his wife says you’ll have romance and love if you buy our homes. With online campaign pages, for example, images of the candidate enhance the persona they want to be picked up by the viewer–patriotic, religious, family man, etc. I think GroupThink mentality, imparticularly, might be more susceptible to this type of influence. Thanks, Dave.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Hmm.. Michael, this is an interesting subject. Why do you think images have so much more impact than mere words? It might be that ‘every picture tells a story’ and we all know how powerful stories are. I’m surprised, then, that the politicians, instead of mud-slinging and misrepresenting their opponents’ position, aren’t using powerful photos again and again to make their point. Maybe they’re not smart enough…?

  4. catnmus says:

    Your point about the CEO making fast decisions reminds me of some job postings my husband saw on Monster a couple of months ago. They were for two different positions at the same company. I think one was a Project Manager and the other was a Technical Lead or something like that. The two posts were IDENTICAL, except for one word. The Tech lead position required someone that could make “good” decisions, and the project manager position required someone that could make “fast” decisions. What do you want to bet that the project mgmt position paid more, too….

  5. I always enjoy your knowledge mgt screeds and can wow some professor and IT types out in BC, who don’t stay ahead of this kind of wave. More’s the pity for them. They are still working on KM in the mainframe context and static web site land with supporting list servers et al. Gimme a break!!And your eco pieces are fascinating. To think that you live near Blue Mountain or hill for us west of Rockies folk!!When are you considering a move to this lalalala land. Get before the big quake!!!Robt, hopeful and energized by stuff like yours!!

  6. Jon Husband says:

    I think people project themselves into images the instant they see them, whereas with words it takes a bit of time to read, think :what are those words saying to me, why and in what context” and then we begin a decision-making process.Our immediate sense-making points of reference are engaged differently, I believe – we make sense of the pictures almost immediately through a less analytic process, comparing and contrasting against our own mental and emaotional “database” of experience that we also remember visually. We “put ourselves into the picture” to understand what it means to us.

  7. Michael says:

    Dave, I fear my comment was a digression from the direction you were going with The Wisdom of Crowds. So I apologize for that.While I was reading your post, though, I remembered a university class over ten years ago on language and communication. One of the topics we discussed was the power of images. I don’t believe that images replace words, or that they should replace them. Rather, I think the power of images is that Groups use them to help sustain their belief structure and ideology. Consider political parties and religions. (And, like my post above, companies will use them to portray emotions that persuade us to purchase their product.)Using Jon’s thoughtful comments on this topic, I’d like to add that images help fortify the decisions we have already processed through. An example of this could be Bush’s landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln in May of 2003 to declare the war over. Before Bush got to the podium to speak, before we saw the banner draped across the command center stating the end of war, we were immersed in images of the president flying onto the aircraft carrier and walking away from his plane wearing Air Force flight gear. This was an expensive way to fortify or establish a persona for the president.I hope this clarifies my first comment.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Michael: Sometimes the ‘digressions’ point us to where we really needed to go. The disproportionate impact of images, the role that our parents’ choice of school plays in giving us what we need to change the world — these are important matters, contributions to the dialogue that transcends any single article. So, thank you.

  9. Michael says:

    Really, Dave, thank you! You got those wheels in my head turning with this fascinating topic. You’re thoughts and questions are always intriguing.”the disproportionate impact of images…” love it.

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