|October 26, 2011||Volume 11, Issue 43|
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by Rick Brenner
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. 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.
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.
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. Top Next Issue
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