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October 26, 2011 Volume 11, Issue 43
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Decisions: How Looping Back Helps


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
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