Tag Archive for groupthink

A Tale of Two Decision-Makers, or How Self-Reflection Leads to Self-Preservation

Among factors influencing the decision-making of a leader are the people and groups involved in the process and their levels of influence on the final decision.

You may have worked in organizations where decision-making is well-and-truly top-down. I’ve done work for two of them, both in need of transformation for various reasons (including rapid, technological changes in their industries and a need for succession planning).

The way the patriarchal leaders of these two organizations reflect on their decision-making vis-à-vis their advisors and staff will play a big part in their ability to transform their organizations.

In Organization 1—a publishing company—decisions come from the leader alone, with some information and suggestions provided by a small, trusted advisory group or sometimes just one lieutenant—workers are expected to accept the decision or leave. In Organization 2—a logistics company—the chief executive also makes autocratic decisions, but tellingly he struggles with whether or not his ideas will be accepted by his staff.

Incidentally, the Vroom/Yetton Normative Decision Model is often used to define the alternatives available for a leader when making decisions:

• A leader may make simple decisions with no assistance, using whatever information is available.

• He or she may obtain information from staff or consultants. (The leader may also decide not to reveal the reason for requesting information, and the information supplier may or may not have influence over the decisions.)

• Or the leader may decide to involve a group in the process, delegate the decision, and so on.

Decision quality often is affected by impersonal aspects (I’m paraphrasing management theorist NF Maier here) and is driven by three types of outcomes: 1) quality/rationality; 2) acceptance or commitment by individuals and teams; and, 3) the amount of time available to make the decision.

Any time a decision can be made without involving others is ideal; however, consideration must be made as to whether the organization supports the approach.

In Organization 2, when the chief executive attempts to make even the simplest decisions without consulting his team, he is often met with resistance. The reason for this brings up possibilities for managerial improvement—the executive rarely communicates clearly with his organization, and he is not aware of, or sensitive to, his staff’s ability to execute his decisions.

The logistics industry, you see, is one where workers typically are only trained on specific tasks, and often they do not know how to perform outside them. Although the chief is somewhat aware of this, he still allows his staff to think outside their tasks. Unfortunately, they have no training along these lines, and failures to properly execute diminish their trust in their leader and their willingness to commit to more of his decisions.

Organization 1 is solely led by its chairman’s decisions alone, or with input from a very small group of executives who are not involved in production. In this case, workers are freely told how the chairman makes decisions and that they are expected to execute them without resistance. The organization is very polite about all this, although resistance to decisions is not tolerated and resistors are removed.

Helpfully, the human resources manager has an open-door policy. In this office concerns and ideas can be shared, although this openness is a method to identify resistors. While this type of organization may not appeal to many professionals, it has been successful in achieving its goals, partly by strictly controlling its decisions.

In recent years the firm has had to grow by acquisition to maintain the same revenue base. Despite these acquisitions the chairman has successfully maintained his strategy because the creativity that comes with open participation, devil’s advocacy, and autonomous teams is not to be found.

The company acknowledges that creative individuals will not tolerate the atmosphere, but its planned approach maintains equilibrium and steady revenue generation. Creative talents have ideas that can lead to risk and the company is risk adverse. Additionally, the company makes money on labor hours, and “steady grunts” billing by the hour are more profitable.

However, Organization 1’s chairman, his second-in-command, and members of the board are aging, and there is no apparent succession planning in place. The organization therefore needs to aggressively plan its future strategy in order to remain relevant. In fact, more pressingly than succession planning, the firm must address how to innovate in the rapidly changing publishing world. Since there is little creativity in-house, strategic re-orientation may have to come from outside, a prospect that may be difficult to accept.

Reviewing both cases as a consultant, the greater opportunity for transformation lies with Organization 2.

That’s because its chief executive realizes his business environment has become too complex to manage autocratically. Importantly, he’s seeking assistance to determine what the organization needs to look like in order to get decisions accepted and to learn how to innovate in order to remain relevant in a virtual economy. Such honesty and self-reflection has yet to be found in Organization 1!

I have recommended the culture change theories of John Kotter to the chief executive of Organization 2. In fact, he knows Kotter’s theories, and although he is suspicious of theories in general, he appears to accept Kotter due to his consulting background.

Furthermore, Kotter’s steps are easy to understand and use as a framework. The primary ways to create a culture change, according to Kotter, is to speed up decision-making and reduce bureaucracy, while empowering workers to make more decisions.

 

The Ant and the Grasshopper: Continuity Planning & Situation Awareness

Success in projects large and small often relies on a great deal of “situation awareness”—the awareness of dynamic factors integral to and surrounding a project and of the extent to which a change in one variable affects the whole.

Some of the most critical variables in any project are, of course, humans.

Situation awareness must always include an assessment of the human environment within which a project is taking place, and if you are the leader (an executive or project manager), you must be prepared to adjust your style and approach based on the personalities, power relationships, motivations, and intentions you encounter.

If that sounds multi-layered and complex, it is. The human brain is still the most powerful and creative computer we know of, but all that grey matter comes with baggage. Even before actual work ever gets done, leaders must seek common understanding and trust—and appropriate boundaries. There are no true cookie cutter management applications or algorithms—we always have to make adjustments.

A Modern Fable

To illustrate, let me tell you a story from my past experience—a kind of modern version of “The Ant and the Grasshopper!”

At the beginning of the last decade, I was consulting with a multi-national corporation when continuity planning became a hot topic. It was a sidebar to the Y2K debacle, when companies were forced to make adjustments based on short-sighted computer programming that had not provided for the switch from “1999” to “2000.”

As 2000 approached our organization realized that anything programmed with dates—security systems, printers, engineering controllers—might not work if relying on date-driven information. (In a related example, when I was working for a very large media company, a building security system was tested for the year 2000; it locked all the doors in corporate headquarters and would not be opened without being completely dismantled!)

“What Are Your Priorities?”

As information officer, responsibility for continuity planning fell on me and my staff. Since we were a federal contractor, we used the methodology prescribed by the General Accounting Office (GAO), and we hired a “Big Five” consulting firm to perform third party validation.

These two decisions created pressure for buy-in by the organization to participate. Additionally, we didn’t just make this a Y2K exercise, but a business continuity exercise, posing the general question, “How long can you afford to not do business, and what are the priorities to maintain minimal operations?”

The study became an exercise in situation awareness within a complex system, conducted over six months.

It produced an inventory of facilities and IT systems—essentially anything that had a controller in it, including lowly stamp machines. Items were rated for effect on mission critical operations. Scenarios were examined for contractual, political, and natural incidents that could cause disruptions. These were run through multifunctional teams for review, testing, and prioritizing. We created emergency plans, maps, and communication trees that included meet-up locations, service level agreements from providers, and alternative phone systems.

A Natural Disaster

Every office participated, but one. And sure enough, a disaster struck that office causing a continuity crisis—its facility’s roof was ripped off in a hurricane. Because there was no continuity plan in place, this subsidiary and the project office were unable to meet contractual requirements, and they both went out of business.

Meanwhile, through advance testing, every system but one mail machine in the corporate office had been addressed prior to Y2K and coped with the date change just fine. And when the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks happened, the same plan was used and the organization quickly locked down project areas that were considered susceptible to terrorist strikes.

The teamwork and collaboration involved in this project must be noted. Due to the complexity of the organization and the services rendered, there was no reliance on an individual—or, to allude to another fable, on the boy with a finger in the dyke.

Teams were important and players had to be able to assume each other’s roles. For example, when the voice-over IP communications lines went down briefly during the Sept. 11, 2011 attacks, two remote engineers stepped in for the IT people, who were busy being safety marshals.

By referring to the Emergency Manual, individuals in Alabama and North Dakota were able to reroute communications lines through emergency dial up connections that the organization maintained for critical connectivity. Not only was safety ensured—and calm maintained—but investor and public relations kept communications channels open, even as some larger companies were affected by leaks and improper information disclosure by employees in the midst of that crisis.

Managing Chaos, or Predicting the Unpredictable

If you want to observe the role of chaos in management theory, help run a sports program! A hockey player, I have helped run a few over the years. Yes, there’s lots about these programs that’s very orderly and top-down, with one exception.

Messy Humans

Typically, hockey programs run on predictable schedules that are the same year-in, year-out. Decision-making is usually fact-based and easy to implement, with clear delegation to a hierarchy of coaches, managers, and staff. But there is always one factor that adds a dose of chaos—the human factor.

A committee might not have proper authority to make decisions; individuals have personal agendas; parents intervene; “referees suck;” and there’s always inappropriate personal relationships, feuds, and ill discipline.

Humans are messy—but in a sports program, authority tends to rest on the shoulders of a director. As long as everyone respects authority, he or she is able to decisively move forward on any issue, either by reference to policy, or experience, or industry standards.

However, according to management philosopher Meg Wheatley, “If you’re interested in creating sustainable growth, sustainable productivity, sustainable morale, you can’t do that through autocracy.”

Document Everything

Simply dictating behavior and outcomes doesn’t work in most cases these days. Well, maybe it does in a hockey program—but Wheatley says you’ll be surprised how self-correcting and complexly adaptable the Army is!

In this interview, Wheatley discusses chaos management theory. Of course, she doesn’t mean that sustainable organizations are anarchic; rather, they have the ability to turn seemingly random events (i.e. the human factor) into patterns that can help them learn and predict outcomes. The Army, notes Wheately, “studies history carefully” and “documents everything.”

But is this approach good for all businesses? Once a hockey coach introduced a new training regimen to my program—small group games—bringing to bear his experience and learning. Other coaches were easy to win over. But parents are results-oriented. They wanted full scrimmages, goals, wins. They resisted, until a collaborative approach was taken and the “whys” and “wherefores” were shared—opening up the learning experience to the parents, who self-corrected and adapted.

Disruptive Change

However, most organizations have more moving parts than a hockey program. And many have much less tolerance for risk and much greater need for process stability—think hospitals or nuclear power plants. Creating a chaotic state might guarantee change; however, its direction cannot be guaranteed.

On the other hand, organizations that thrive on creativity may be better suited for chaos management. Technology firms, for instance, may benefit from disruptive change because they require constant innovation to stay competitive.

And traditional companies may at times benefit from disruptive change for the sake of survival. The print industry is shrinking due to the adoption of dynamic media such as websites, and Kodak’s recent bankruptcy is an example of a print industry firm that failed because its change management was perhaps not disruptive enough.

Pattern Finding

If your change management job is to deliver an expected outcome, perhaps chaos is not the first arrow to reach for. Or it could be if its lessons in pattern-finding are brought to bear. Recall that one discovery of this science is the fractal, the idea that simple, repeatable, mathematical patterns are at the heart of some of nature’s most efficient designs, such as snail shells and leaves.

If chaos management can be used to observe what is occurring as events unfold, and if it can help us react rationally to those unfolding events, then we’re onto something.

Chaos theory also teaches us that events are interconnected, affected by minute external changes—the so-called “butterfly effect.” Perhaps chaos management can help us recognize this interconnectedness and let go of the search for control and certainty, embracing probability, prediction, and forecasting as key management tools.

Leaders, I think, make decisions most successfully when they fully understand the context of the organization—its complexity, risk climate, human behavior, external factors such as politics—and they are even more successful when they monitor responses and act appropriately based on what they learn.

Observations on OODA, or Does the Machine Know?

Before you read this blog, watch this great clip from The Office and think about Michael’s situational awareness, decision-making process, and ability to update his “reality baseline!”

There are many theories that attempt to codify the decision-making process. One that has had a big influence on my decision-making approach is Boyd’s “OODA Loop.”

Col. John Boyd was a fighter pilot and military theorist whose analysis (and practice) of aerial combat led him to formulate high-level strategic military theories (including one that formed the basis of the Gulf War military plan) and general cognitive theories, including the OODA Loop, which has since become popular in business and sports.

OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. It is Boyd’s shorthand for the way humans interact with and control their environment. The idea is that individuals, businesses, armies, etc. that master the OODA loop gain the advantage.

These are the four simple steps in a dynamic OODA Loop:

  1. Observation: Take in data about the overall situation.
  2. Orientation: Analyze and make judgments about the situation.
  3. Decision: Determine a course of action.
  4. Action: Execute the action, then observe the decision (to start the loop again!)

When engaged in a game, business decision, battle, or otherwise, Boyd insists the successful “get inside the OODA Loop.” One strategy for success is to execute OODA loops faster than opponents, thereby improving situational awareness while the opponent loses effectiveness. Mistakes made by individuals or groups result from old information or mis-guided situational assessments and decisions.

Boyd suggests that organizations that execute the best OODA loops strike a balance between decentralized (and therefore nimble) decision-makers and top echelons that monitor from afar just enough to ensure that lower rank decision-makers adhere to a grand strategy. Not surprisingly, this describes the military hierarchy pretty well!

However, what is not specifically called out in the OODA model is the reflexive, critical thinking that can help refine and improve the connections between the OODA steps. American pragmatist thinkers—Dewey, James, Peirce—have much to say along these lines. Other theories that complicate OODA come from Karl Weick—his “Theory of Sensemaking,” for instance, examines the roles that ambiguity and uncertainty play in observation, analysis, and decision-making.

In fact, I keep in mind Weick’s Theory of Sensemaking at all times because my business requires constant and complex situational awareness, especially when collaborating with other organizations.

Michael from The Office probably should have updated his “reality baseline” rather than blindly trust his TomTom—he made a poor decision in the face of a common sense alternative. Writ large, a silly human error like his can become a colossal groupthink failure!