BY STEVE HEARSUM
Ever been left bewildered by decisions your company makes? Curious as to what possessed the CEO to propose that strategy, when everyone knows it is barking mad? Baffled as to why you have just spent three hours in a meeting that was supposed to come up with a cunning plan, and all you are left with is a set of vague and fluffy actions requiring yet more interminably long strategy meetings?
Most life changing events in our careers have at their root someone, somewhere, deciding something. Sometimes we may be present to influence that, others not. Either way, what, if anything, can we do about it? And how actually do humans make decisions? I mean, it’s a rational process, right?….
When I researched how executives bought and sold businesses, one intriguing thing to emerge was the role desire played in decision making. In other words, emotion was in full swing, not just cool calculation around facts and figures. How so? Well, behavioural neurologist, Antonio Damasio, has demolished the idea that emotion can, or should, be kept out of decision making in order to get the best results. And the more neuroscientists inquire into human decision making the greater the significance of the interplay between the emotional (animal) and rational sectors of the brain.
Gardiner Morse, a senior editor at Harvard Business Review, summarized it in ‘Decisions and Desire’:“Brain regions that respond to cocaine or morphine are the same ones that react to the prospect of getting money and to actually receiving it. It’s perhaps no surprise that chocolate, sex, music, attractive faces, and sports cars also arouse this reward system.”
So just maybe your sales team really are high?
Part of the problem is we (over) value decisiveness, and leaders who can act John Wayne style, relying on gut instinct and intuition to act swiftly. The issue, as Gary Klein – the author of several books on intuition – says, is “you should never trust your gut… you have to consciously and deliberately evaluate it.” In other words, think critically, check out your assumptions, look at what is actually happening.
So what can be done practically to ensure that decisions are made that make sense and meet the needs of all those involved?
Well, there is no guaranteed answer, but here are some suggestions that may help to improve the quality of meetings. I advise clients to work out beforehand:
• What are the questions the meeting is designed to answer?
• What outcomes are they looking to walk away with?
• How will they reach a decision? e.g. consensus, majority vote etc?
• What do people need to have read beforehand? (to avoid wasting time on briefing rather than dialogue)
Are you strong enough to value dissent?
The most robust decisions emerge from groups that are able to be straight with each other. And sadly this is one area many leaders are weak in, namely they are intolerant of challenge.
Stage the untimely demise of the Big Idea!
Hold a pre-mortem, a technique Gary Klein came up with, and one way of making it safer to voice that dissent. He describes thus:
“You say: ‘We’re looking in a crystal ball, and this project has failed; it’s a fiasco. Now, everybody, take two minutes and write down all the reasons why you think the project failed.’
“The logic is that instead of showing people that you are smart because you can come up with a good plan, you show you’re smart by thinking of insightful reasons why this project might go south. If you make it part of your corporate culture, then you create an interesting competition: ‘I want to come up with some possible problem that other people haven’t even thought of.’ The whole dynamic changes from trying to avoid anything that might disrupt harmony to trying to surface potential problems.”
It may seem counter-intuitive to focus on the negative, but what is interesting about the pre-mortem is how it helps surface issues that may otherwise lurk in the shadows and are never discussed.
Putting dissent to the test…
In writing this guest column for OfficePolitics.com, I went back and forth with site founder and editor, Franke James, many, many, many times discussing meeting strategies. She sent me this candid feedback on my article and suggested I consider Dr. Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats system.
The Six Thinking Hats: WHITE: Facts and figures RED: Emotions and feelings BLUE: Control and thinking GREEN: Creativity and new ideas YELLOW: Positive constructive BLACK: Logical and negative
“On your blog post — I like it a lot… BUT I question the wisdom of surrendering the floor to the naysayers. Black Hat thinking is all around us. Corporations don’t need more encouragement to squash ideas. They need brave people with foresight who can champion innovative ideas and make them work. De Bono’s system is brilliant because it balances the forces of optimists, so-called realists and naysayers.
“In ‘Six Thinking Hats’ de Bono teaches a method for conducting meetings that I have found extremely effective. De Bono assigns a different color, and different thinking style to each of the six hats. It encourages groups of people to think in one direction at a time, to allow optimistic ideas to grow, and also negative ideas to be aired. It’s a very systematic style of meeting that can effortlessly control the naysayers in your group. The naysayers will want to speak up — but if their comments are negative they can only speak when everyone is wearing the Black Hat. This gives them an incentive to think with the full spectrum of Thinking Hats.
“Ideas that you might have missed by going through a more conventional meeting style come to the surface. Everything is considered because you are methodically going through a checklist. Everyone gets to have their say. The Six Hats system generates a wealth of ideas from 360 degrees. It works to build consensus and make better decisions.”
So there you have it. Two differing opinions thrashed out virtually across the pond.
What do you think?
Which process do you like better? The pre-mortem or the Six Hats? And why?
Let us know in the comments.
About Steve Hearsum
Steve Hearsum is a UK-based consultant, facilitator and coach. A coffee nerd and curious as to why he could never find a decent cappuccino, Steve began searching for the perfect blend of bean, grinder, milk and steam, and the best way to combine them. The interconnectedness of ingredients and process has become a governing philosophy for him. He is passionate about sensitizing organizations to the importance of human interactions for effective performance, and is writing a fascinating book on interpersonal chemistry… For more background on Steve please visit www.deboxing.co.uk.
References & useful resources
ARIELY, D. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions, 2009
HEARSUM, S. Interpersonal ‘fit’ in Mergers & Acquisitions due diligence – unpublished Masters dissertation, 2008
KLEIN, G. Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, 1999
KLEIN, G. The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work
LEHRER, J. Decisive Moment, the: How the brain makes up its mind
MORSE, G. (2006) ‘Decisions and Desire’ in Harvard Business Review, Jan 2006 pp42-51
McKinsey Quarterly, ‘Strategic decisions: When can you trust your gut?’ Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and psychologist Gary Klein debate the power and perils of intuition for senior executives. March 2010