Decision making – beware the chasm!

Decision making is generally a social process involving a number of ‘decision-makers’, discussing different angles, sharing perspectives, considering ramifications of potential choices, and so on.

Sometimes it also needs to be a technical process, involving subject matter experts, analysts, and specialised evaluation techniques.

The problem then is that these two aspects don’t naturally combine – in fact, the people involved can sometimes seem to be from different tribes, talking different languages. Natural forces and human instincts keep these two tribes apart, a chasm can appear in-between, and a lot of valuable information can drop down the gap (from either direction).

And it’s worse than that. On the ‘decider’ side of the chasm the process may be multi-layered, for example with different levels of management involved, and signals getting passed up and down the hierarchy. Each interface is an opportunity for information loss, particularly as recommendations are simplified, and language is adjusted (often softened to fit expectations).

The ‘expert’ side may be no better; tribes can certainly thrive here too. It’s only human.

What has been shown to work in these situations is a collaborative sense-making approach, bringing the ‘deciders’ and ‘experts’ together in a carefully designed and structured socio-technical process (i.e. not just a big workshop!) Any reasonably complicated decision involving several criteria cannot just be managed in people’s heads, humans simply don’t have the cognitive capacity to cope, so tools and software models that can handle that aspect are vital. Facilitation is also important, to lead the participants through a step by step process, allowing each of them to learn from the group and contribute back to the group.

This doesn’t mean that the most senior decision-makers need to be exposed to vast detail. What they usually want is a clear recommendation, or options with the key trade-offs identified; simple enough to convey the key aspects of the decision, but rich enough to support a drill-down into detail if required. And they need the confidence that a valid evidence-based process has been followed.