Written by Meena Thuraisingham, Author of “The Secret Life of Decisions:how unconscious bias subverts your judgment” , Gower Publishing UK, Jan 2013
Every decision a business makes involves some risk – a reality today of the increasingly ambiguous, volatile and uncertain business environment. We tell ourselves if only we had better, more complete information we would produce better judgements and risk-free decisions. But even with the best information, our brains can subvert our judgments and decisions through the many distortions ingrained in the way our minds work.
However while recognising the impact our unconscious biases have on our decisions, many of us have also convinced ourselves that if we were trained to put aside our preferences, beliefs and biases we would become better decision makers. But this is akin to asking a fish to walk not swim. Our cognitive habits are so difficult to shake because association and heuristics are ubiquitous in our thinking processes and in fact necessary for making sense of the world and even for survival. As a result our attempts to train individuals and teams not to think representatively or over rely on past association and heuristics have so far proved largely unsuccessful. It is not enough to take precautions against ourselves by investing in self knowledge, and better reflective skill. It is also vital that we invest in building better decision making processes in our organisations. Processes that expose us in more deliberate ways to the thinking of those beyond natural coalitions and our immediate circles, and creating a decision dynamic around the executive table that will overcome insular, tribal, or binary ways of thinking.
Bad decisions are rarely a consequence poor critical thinking faculties or the lack of intellect of the executive teams making them, and instead can often be traced to an inherent weakness in the decision making process. A healthy decision dynamic around an executive table has 3 critical attributes – fresh insight, robust debate and independent opinion. This dynamic is created by a decision making process that ensures a team generates diverse ideas that would not ordinarily have crossed our minds, identify risks we did not see or anticipate, interrogate unchallenged assumptions, understand critical dependencies better and feel comfortable to challenge the company’s operating assumptions and cherished formulas for success before they become strategic blind spots.
However developing a robust decision making process can prove challenging for many executive teams not only because most successful executives show an over-confidence in their own decision making abilities, but also because organisations prize certainty and speed. The drive for certainty and speed causes us to be more optimistic than we should be about the business plans we submit, reach for the most available confirming evidence or data even in the face of disconfirming evidence, gloss over counter-arguments, make choices to justify our past choices and react to the time pressures by pushing for consensus before a robust debate is had.
Diverse teams bringing diverse perspectives to the table is not enough, there needs to be a process of engagement and collaboration that allows diverse perspectives to be given air time and mindfully engaged with, and for the lone or contrary voice to have the courage to speak up.
When organisations don’t invest the energy to strengthen decision making processes they stand the risk of becoming locked into a ‘dominant logic’ – a set of distinctive business ideologies, doctrines or beliefs that underpin how they compete, how they measure performance or what they prioritise and so on. Over time this dominant logic that has served the company well becomes an inflexible tautology that no one challenges, serving to further entrench company beliefs, until there is a crisis often brought about by the creation of unacceptable risks to stakeholders.
In order to avoid these unacceptable risks businesses need to systematically rethink on 3 levels – mindset, players and process. Companies that make diversity a company value or strategy, and ensure those espoused values are actually practiced in their decision making processes will have the best chance of leaving behind a legacy of great decisions and an organisation that will stand the test of time.
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Written by Meena Thuraisingham
Director and Principal, Talent Invest
Meena Thuraisingham is a consultant, author, executive coach and thought leader in the area of People and Culture. An organisational psychologist by training, she founded TalentInvest, a niche consulting practice, advising global clients in the UK, Asia and Australia in Capability and Culture. Meena is also a regular speaker internationally on leadership effectiveness and culture change.
Her published books are The Secret Life of Decisions, Careers Unplugged and Derailed!. Get Your Copy Today