Decision making is arguably the most important job of the senior executive and one of the easiest to get wrong. It doesn’t have to be that way—if you look at the process in a whole new light.
Leaders show their mettle in many ways—setting strategy and motivating people, just to mention two—but above all else leaders are made or broken by the quality of their decisions. That’s a given, right? If you answered yes, then you would probably be surprised by how many executives approach decision making in a way that neither puts enough options on the table nor permits sufficient evaluation to ensure that they can make the best choice. Indeed, our research over the past several years strongly suggests that, simply put, most leaders get decision making all wrong.
The reason: Most businesspeople treat decision making as an event—a discrete choice that takes place at a single point in time, whether they’re sitting at a desk, moderating a meeting, or staring at a spreadsheet. This classic view of decision making has a pronouncement popping out of a leader’s head, based on experience, gut, research, or all three. Say the matter at hand is whether to pull a product with weak sales off the market. An “event” leader would mull in solitude, ask for advice, read reports, mull some more, then say yea or nay and send the organization off to make it happen. But to look at decision making that way is to overlook larger social and organizational contexts, which ultimately determine the success of any decision.
The fact is, decision making is not an event. It’s a process, one that unfolds over weeks, months, or even years; one that’s fraught with power plays and politics and is replete with personal nuances and institutional history; one that’s rife with discussion and debate; and one that requires support at all levels of the organization when it comes time for execution. Our research shows that the difference between leaders who make good decisions and those who make bad ones is striking. The former recognize that all decisions are processes, and they explicitly design and manage them as such. The latter persevere in the fantasy that decisions are events they alone control.
In this article, we’ll explore how leaders can design and manage a sound, effective decision-making process—an approach we call inquiry—and outline a set of criteria for assessing the quality of the decision-making process. First, a look at the process itself.
Decisions as Process: Inquiry Versus Advocacy
Not all decision-making processes are equally effective, particularly in the degree to which they allow a group to identify and consider a wide range of ideas. In our research, we’ve seen two broad approaches. Inquiry, which we prefer, is a very open process designed to generate multiple alternatives, foster the exchange of ideas, and produce a well-tested solution.
Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t come easily or naturally to most people. Instead, groups charged with making a decision tend to default to the second mode, one we call advocacy. The two look deceptively similar on the surface: groups of people, immersed in discussion and debate, trying to select a course of action by drawing on what they believe is the best available evidence. But despite their similarities, inquiry and advocacy produce dramatically different results.
When a group takes an advocacy perspective, participants approach decision making as a contest, although they don’t necessarily compete openly or even consciously. Well-defined groups with special interests—dueling divisions in search of budget increases, for example—advocate for particular positions. Participants are passionate about their preferred solutions and therefore stand firm in the face of disagreement. That level of passion makes it nearly impossible to remain objective, limiting people’s ability to pay attention to opposing arguments. Advocates often present information selectively, buttressing their arguments while withholding relevant conflicting data. Their goal, after all, is to make a compelling case, not to convey an evenhanded or balanced view. Two different plant managers pushing their own improvement programs, for example, may be wary of reporting potential weak points for fear that full disclosure will jeopardize their chances of winning the debate and gaining access to needed resources.
What’s more, the disagreements that arise are frequently fractious and even antagonistic.
Personalities and egos come into play, and differences are normally resolved through battles of wills and behind-the-scenes maneuvering. The implicit assumption is that a superior solution will emerge from a test of strength among competing positions. But in fact this approach typically suppresses innovation and encourages participants to go along with the dominant view to avoid further conflict.