Decision making – the empty quadrant


Decision Making - the parliament, general elections and the Brexit referendum
Decision Making – the parliament, general elections and the Brexit referendum

The diagram in the previous post had an empty quadrant. It bugged me that I could not think of a decision making process that lay in that quadrant.

Which decision making process considers lots of options, and votes on them (or discusses them) regularly?

It came to me next morning. And once it came, it stayed. It’s so obvious that there are books, and cartoon strips, and TV sitcom episodes based on it.

It is the Office Meeting!

Office Meetings (and committee meetings, and council meetings…)

Decision Making - the office meetings
Decision Making – the office meetings

In office meetings, everyone has a say, and everyone uses that say – to indicate their presence. This results in an overload – of ideas, opinions on each idea, and tangents from each idea and each opinion. This overload ensures that the meetings reach as high as possible on the vertical axis in the chart above.

Also, in most meetings there is no agreed upon decision system – HIPPO vs Majority vs Critical stake holders vs Meeting host vs … . So meetings have a tendency to end up in a call for another meeting. In terms of our chart, this places them on the far right – a never-ending cycle of meeting- upon-meeting.

The result of this combination of infinite number of decision options, and never-ending series of decision meetings is gridlock. This is probably why meetings are perhaps the most reviled and parodied aspect of modern office lives.

Key features of office and committee meetings:

  • Near-infinite choice – everyone’s opinion is considered
  • Near-infinite frequency – the most frequent output of a meeting is a decision to hold another meeting

Good decision making, bad decision making

The chart shows two good ways of making decisions (bottom-right and top-left), and two terrible ways (top-right and bottom-left).

If a decision is reversible, it’s best to consider just a few key options and make it quickly. The decision may then be revisited as soon, and as often as needed. This is how parliamentary votes take place. This is how lean startups function. This is also how referendums in places like California and Switzerland take place.

If a decision is hard to reverse or modify, it’s best to consider all feasible options, deeply. Then make a decision, and put all execution support behind it. This is how general election votes take place – with a plurality of candidates and parties. This is also how large capital investment decisions are made in well-run organisations.

These are both good ways to make different types of decisions. Then are the two terrible kinds.

One is to take an irreversible, consequential decision while considering very limited choices (a yes-no). This was the Brexit vote.

The other is to take forever, voting multiple times, considering a vast number of options each time – even for trivial decisions. This is the office meeting. Even deciding where to go for lunch takes forever. No wonder companies provide in-house canteens.

The first type results in bad, probably-biased decisions whose consequences everyone has to live with without recourse. The other results in decision paralysis – where all decisions take too long, or smart people start completely bypassing the decision making process.

At least, with the never-ending committee meetings, there’s no regret of having to live with a bad decision.

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