As for the presentations, I have good notes. They were all pretty basic, focusing on how decisions should be made and the factors influencing them. Surprisingly, the crowds, primarily executives, seemed a little conflicted with the message. The common thread in all the presentations is that we have inadequate data to substantiate choosing a direction. The attendees seemed to want to focus on the process rather than looking at what the decision is riding on—the data.
How to Spot Quality Decisions
To look at this a little deeper it is best to start with a few definitions. First, there are no quality decisions, at least at the time they are made. There are decisions made using quality processes. The processes, though, only reduce the occurrence of poor decisions. It will not eliminate them.
Second, quality decisions are only known in retrospect. A decision is about the future, if you knew the outcome as being truly a quality decision, then it would be an observation rather than a decision. For instance, deciding to market to a new demographic can only be evaluated as a quality decision when sales have increased. A quality decision is only known in hindsight.
There are a simple set of factors that comprise up a good decision making process. The four basic requirements are:
- Know the alternatives. Never evaluate a decision in isolation. A decision always has one alternate—inaction. However, there are nearly always alternate actions. Evaluate as many as possible.
- Gather input from numerous sources. This could be from experience, other people, or both. Herein lies the crux of making poor decisions—the data that we get is invalid or incomplete. As humans, we are very poor at estimating. We are optimistic about our capabilities and fail to see all the risk associated with tasks. In addition, during execution, we further violate our estimates by taking on additional work.
- Understand the consequences. We must have full comprehension of what will happen as a result of all the decisions, including the decision to do nothing. Both the positive and negative outcomes must be understood in order to insure we are headed the right direction.
- Determine how the plan will be carried out. Making a decision usually makes anyone feel better. The pressure is off. But, the work has only begun. Without an execution plan the decision has little chance of succeeding.
Changing a Decision
In my research on quality decisions, I ran across this: "A quality decision is one from which there is no turning back. It is set in stone. You make up your mind and you don't change it for anything or anybody or any pressure or any persecution. We need to make this kind of decision concerning every aspect of our life in order to be successful in life and in order to overcome the plans the enemy tries to have for us." Albeit, this source is, at best, dubious, however the attitude is not isolated to Mr. Browne. Former President Bush, noted by many as having the antithesis of a good decision making process, made it common knowledge that he was never going to back away from any decision regardless of the results it was achieving. I would say this quote probably fits him quite well. This process and behavior is far from the definition of quality decision making.
The Decisions Maker's Responsibility
That brings in the last point when looking at decisions—the qualities of the decision maker. Can the person making the decision admit they were wrong and take the corrective action required to improve the decision or abandon it altogether? Rather will they be like the prior paragraph and refuse to "change it for anything or anybody or any pressure or any persecution." Good leaders are continually re-evaluating their decisions and ensuring they will be quality decisions, instantiating course corrections to achieve the best results.
Do People Get This?
A few months ago, I was at a presentation by Avanade, the Microsoft/Accenture joint venture. The presenter went to great lengths to say that every executive in the room needed to focus on ensuring everyone in the company, regardless of title, was focused on providing quality data for every decision. When the presentation was opened for questions, a Vice President of Quality asked, "What do you think the next killer-app is going to be? We have virtualized our desktops and we need another big leap like that." The presenter kindly said he did not know and re-iterated that expanding the Organization Development (OD) efforts would reap excellent rewards. The presenter only received blank looks in return.