Point Lookout An email newsletter from Chaco Canyon Consulting
Point Lookout, a free weekly email newsletter from Chaco Canyon Consulting
October 26, 2011 Volume 11, Issue 43
 
Recommend this issue to a friend
Join the Friends of Point Lookout
HTML to link to this article…
Archive: By Topic    By Date
Links to Related Articles
Sign Up for A Tip A Day!
Create a perpetual bookmark to the current issue Bookmark and Share
Tweet this! | Follow @RickBrenner Random Article

Decisions: How Looping Back Helps

by

Group decision-making often proceeds through a series of steps including forming a list of options, researching them, ranking them, reducing them, and finally selecting one. Often, this linear approach yields disappointing results. Why?
A waterfall and spray cliff in the mountains of Virginia

A waterfall and spray cliff in the mountains of Virginia. The waterfall provides a useful metaphor for the particular decision-making defect we're discussing here. In the linear, beginning-to-ending pattern of decision-making, the group rarely revisits any intermediate conclusions it has made along its path to a final decision. This waterfall process contains no backtracking, and it is thus unable to detect the kinds of environmental changes or perceptual changes that can lead the group to invalidate previous intermediate judgments. Like the water in the waterfall, there is no going back. What's done is done, and that's that. Waterfall decision-making processes are thus vulnerable to environmental or perceptual changes, which are then free to invalidate intermediate results. Photo by Gary P. Fleming, courtesy Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

When groups make decisions about complex questions, they can sometimes approach the problem in a beginning-to-ending fashion that threatens the quality of the outcomes. For instance, in one typical pattern, the group brainstorms alternatives, ranks those alternatives, explores those they regard as the most favorable, ranks them again, and then finally, makes a choice. We use linear patterns like these for everything from hiring to firing, from investing to downsizing — nearly everything.

Just one thing. It doesn't always yield good results.

When the time required for a decision is much shorter than the time scale of changes in the environment, linear decision processes work well. But when the environment — or our knowledge of it — changes rapidly compared to the speed of decision-making, the decision-makers are always working with old news. Their conclusions don't keep pace with reality.

At least two important sources of change threaten the decision process.

Changes in the environment
When the environment changes after the decision process begins, the process can reach a conclusion that was consistent with the pre-change environment, but which no longer fits the environment's new configuration.
Changes in the group's ability to perceive
Groups often acquire new capability during the decision process. They learn, or they abandon old prejudices, or they acquire new members, or they acquire access to new information.

If any of these changes occur during the decision-making process, interim choices made en route to a conclusion can be invalidated without the group's knowledge. Here's a little catalog of items subject to being invalidated.

The problem definition
The inputs When the time required
for a decision is much
shorter than the time
scale of changes in the
environment, looping back
to review intermediate
conclusions is essential
to the process include the overall goal as it was understood at the outset, any intermediate goals developed during the process, and any data used for winnowing intermediate alternatives.
Intermediate lists of alternatives
If the group developed lists of alternatives during its process, those lists might not remain valid for the duration of the process. This can occur either because of changes in the problem space, or because of changes in group perceptions. If the group built its conclusions on intermediate decisions that it would not make again with its new, deeper understanding, trouble lies ahead. Trouble also looms if the group built its conclusions on alternatives inferior to those it would now find easily, knowing what it knows now.
The nature of alternatives
Even among recognized alternatives, changes can occur because the attributes of alternatives can evolve, either in reality or in the group's perceptions.

Decision-makers achieve better outcomes if they periodically "loop back" to review intermediate conclusions. When they loop back, they can ensure that the same set of standards and knowledge was consistently applied throughout the process. It's a benefit similar to what we get from re-reading what we've read. Try it. Re-read this article and see what happens. Go to top Top  Next issue: Good Change, Bad Change: Part I  Next Issue
Bookmark and Share

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenVwyGsmmPPrRNCyAlner@ChacANIKXZmNoEvMDdYfoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Budget and ScheduleGames for Meetings: Part IV
We spend a lot of time and emotional energy in meetings, much of it engaged in any of dozens of ritualized games. Here's Part IV of a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we could do about them.
A time ManagerTime Management in a Hurry
Many of us own books on time management. Here are five tips on time management for those of us who don't have time to read the time management books we've already bought.
Gemini 7 as seen from Gemini 6Trying to Do It Right the First Time Isn't Always Best
You've probably heard the slogan, "Do it right the first time." It makes sense for some kinds of work, but not for all. For more and more of the work done in modern organizations, doing it right the first time — or even trying to — might be the wrong way to go.
A centrifugal governorSixteen Overload Haiku
Most of us have some experience of being overloaded and overworked. Many of us have forgotten what it is not to be overloaded. Here's a contemplation of the state of overload.
Silly BandzBusiness Fads and Their Value
Fads in business come and go, like fads anywhere. In business, though, their effects can be so expensive that they threaten the enterprise. Still, the ideas and methods that become fads can have intrinsic value. Where does that value come from? Where does it go?

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout

A Celebes Crested MacaqueComing July 8: Ethical Debate at Work: Part I
When we decide issues at work on any basis other than the merits, we elevate the chances of making bad decisions. Here are some guidelines for ethical debate. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
President Obama meets with Congressional leadersAnd on July 15: Ethical Debate at Work: Part II
Outcomes of debates at work sometimes favor one party, not only at the expense of the other or others, but also at the expense of the organization. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for steering debates toward wise outcomes. Available here and by RSS on July 15.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenvMiLEkzkOqgPxTLfner@ChacRmRFxbyuHDfDjUUloCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Managing in Fluid Environments
Most Managing in Fluid Environmentspeople now work in environments that can best be characterized as fluid, because they're subject to continual change. We never know what's coming next. In such environments, managing — teams, projects, groups, departments, or the enterprise — often entails moving from surprise to surprise while somehow staying almost on track. It's a nerve-wracking existence. This program provides numerous tools that help managers who work in fluid environments. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: The Organizational Politics of Risk Management
On 14The Race to the South Pole: The Organizational Politics of Risk Management December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in risk management, its application to organizational efforts, and how workplace politics enters the mix. A fascinating and refreshing look at risk management from the vantage point of history and workplace politics. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsLearn how to spot troubled projects before they get out of control.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace -- with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
SSL