Tag Archives: decision making

When are many heads better than one?

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

As a follow on to my last blog, why do we bother with groups at all?

Firstly, it is important to note that sometimes groups are formed as a conscious structural choice of an organisation. At the University of Kent, for example, staff members who were previously dispersed throughout colleges were collected into subject-based academic schools in the mid 1990’s. Professional services are similarly identified as functional units and sometimes co-located to provide support to the core business of the University’s Faculties / Schools. For example, Information Services, Human Resources, Finance and Research Services (among many others) each serve a functional purpose. While much could also be written about these groups, what follows is not focused on groups that are created as part of an organisational structure.

Rather, what about those groups or teams that are created for a reason beyond the formal structure? Research groups, project teams, working parties – these are groups that come together – usually over a finite amount of time – to accomplish a specific goal.

Why do we create these groups? What is the potential value that we gain? While in reality we do not always accrue significant benefits for a host of reasons we will consider, group decision making can be superior to individual decision-making in a number of different situations. Many heads can be better than one, for instance, when:6

  • Tasks require judgments about uncertain events and information available is either incomplete or uncertain
  • Concern for quality outcomes are high and potential benefits are substantial
  • Costs of errors is also high and it may be difficult to reverse or salvage a poor decision
  • Many feasible alternative solutions exist
  • Identifying the optimal alternative is difficult
  • Feedback about results will not be immediately available

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list and there are undoubtedly many more reasons that could be added. Perhaps two key factors that are common, however, are uncertainty and complexity.

So, if groups can sometimes be effective but aren’t in all cases; where do we go wrong? What are the characteristics of successful groups? More on this next time.

Joy in work: avoiding the Olympic hangover

As we reflect on the joy of the Olympics and Paralympics of London 2012 we are faced with the potential of post-summer blues. How do we make sure that our return to the familiar  work routine is not accompanied by feeling flat?

Whilst trawling through some old reading materials I stumbled across an often overlooked principle of management:  ‘joy in work’, originally discussed by W Edwards Deming (1993).

When we think of work, what is ‘joy’ or indeed ‘happiness’, or ‘fulfilment’ or ‘success’?  The topic of joy has been revisited by psychologists and practitioners alike (e.g. Bakke, 2005; Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) and our understanding of well-being, motivation and performance at work is now increasingly informed by both neuroscience and psychology.

Csikszentmihalyi suggests that in seeking joy ‘only direct control of experience, the ability to derive moment-by-moment enjoyment from everything we do, can overcome obstacles to fulfillment’.’ In doing so we are able to get ‘in the zone‘ (or ‘flow’ as Csikszentmihalyi labels it). He argues that we should organise work into flow-producing activities and by implication, eliminate obstacles to flow. In Deming’s words, these obstacles are the ‘system conditions’ that prevent people from having influence over the results and outcomes of their work.

At work the flip-side of joy is stress (and distress). It is not a surprise to find recent research that suggests a link between stress and  a lack of control over your job. This relates to all jobs, not just ‘high powered’ executive jobs. Just this week The Lancet published one such paper (see the BBC link below).

One task in creating a true service culture is to put decision-making authority at the level of the people who do the work, so that they can respond to a variety of customer needs at the point of contact. Being able to make a difference for the people you are serving  is often cited by colleagues as a key part of enjoying work. However, to get an organisation to entrust that level of involvement and autonomy in its staff is a significant challenge…

What are we up to next week?


Further reading:

BBC NEWS, Work stress ‘raises heart risk’,http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-19584526

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: the psychology of optimal experience, Harper Perennial, New York.

Deming W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Now for our next trick – the “leap of abstraction”

At times of change it is tempting to try and move as quickly as possible and to apply what has been used elsewhere (as, in the best possible faith, a shortcut to success). This approach appears plausible, efficient, even sensible, but is it effective?

Look before you leap: if we make assumptions that new approaches are appropriate, we could drag people in the wrong direction!

Recent blogs on ‘facts’ and ‘knowledge’ (see ‘Change and the Knowledge Iceberg‘, ‘Beyond the Obvious‘) point out the danger of doing the obvious when in reality we should be looking for deeper knowledge to inform the ‘ifs, whys and hows’ of change. The problems arise when we make change decisions incorrectly, thereby cycling into ‘mindless change’ (Macdonald 1998). Mindless change is both destabilising and demoralising for staff and, for the organisation, damaging in terms of performance and waste.

At a recent conference, a renowned plenary speaker lamented that most of our management and leadership practice is based on 50-60 year old theory whilst the world has itself  ‘moved on so much’ in the meantime. This may seem  reasonable (there might be changes in the nuances of perception, decision-making and brain structure in human beings in the multi-media, instant-access society that has developed since the 1990s), but in my view that does rather ignore at least the last 50,000 years of  social development in homo sapiens. Good ‘management’ theory (which reaches back several decades further than the 60-years suggested by that speaker) considers basic human functioning and psychology, the dynamics of human organisations, the design of work and the mathematics and physics of output. These fundamentals apply as much in a call centre as they do in a coal mine, factory, or classroom. New ways of looking at these things may not necessarily be better nor, indeed, helpful.

What we need to examine is whether the practices we choose to apply today are based on good, ‘sound’ theory. What is ‘good, sound theory’ ? It involves ideas that hold up under scrutiny over time and are consistent with other theories (which themselves also stand up over time). The best way to test theory is by applying actions and testing evidence. In this sense, to paraphrase Deming, there is nothing as practical as a good theory; it informs actions which offer predictable outcomes. Acting on knowledge is better than second-guessing (Seddon 2005).

Unfortunately this rarely occurs. What usually happens is that ideas or practices are applied without being tested against good theory, or even against a good evidence base. A common example is when one organisation copies the things that other organisations are doing, without understanding either the impact or effectiveness of the practice as experienced by those other organisations. Some organisations label this as ‘benchmarking’ to make it appear systematic and informed, but it often merely involves the organisational equivalent of ‘cutting and pasting’; a form of wishful thinking.

Peter Senge (1990) calls this type of loose thinking a ‘leap of abstraction’ : “leaps of abstraction occur when we move from direct observations to generalizations without testing,” Senge includes the following behaviours as ‘leaps of abstraction’:

  • Assuming you know what people want (students, staff, etc.) without actually asking them
  • Fixing a problem without identifying its causes nor measuring how the process is performing
  • Blaming people for mistakes without understanding how the overall system is performing
  • Developing strategy with little knowledge of competitors, market, risk, or internal capability
  • Jumping on the latest management fad in the hope that it will improve things for your team

If we are managing change, the ‘leap of abstraction’ can be particularly problematic as it will demotivate the very people that we want to take with us on the change; colleagues, clients, users and partners. It will also undermine our own credibility. If we don’t have credibility in the things we do, we erode one important ingredient for successful, sustainable change – trust.

Read more on change:Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

MacDonald, J. (1998) Calling a Halt to Mindless Change, Amacom, UK.

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

Senge P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, Doubleday, New York.

Management by fact or management WITH facts?

In a recent discussion with colleagues, we considered the management approach taken by a progressive university in the US to enable change and improvement. One element of this change was a philosophy of ‘management by fact’. This particular university had found this approach to be helpful and made a difference to the way they made decisions and identified improvements. What had made a difference was not only that they used facts, but that they looked at those facts and considered them in a sensible (and helpful) manner.

But what are facts and why are they useful?

The sky is not less blue because the blind man does not see it.” (Danish proverb)

“Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please” (Mark Twain)

“It is not the facts which guide the conduct of men, but their opinions about facts; which may be entirely wrong. We can only make them right by discussion” (Sir Norman Angell)

Of course any person works and makes decisions using facts – don’t they? In reality people can use, ignore, interpret or distort facts. An emphasis of ‘facts’ can sometimes actually disguise a lack of understanding or  can be merely a knee-jerk demonstration of what a person sees as ‘effective’ management. In these cases the shortcomings are  inevitable:

paralysis by analysis’: an inability to consider options or initiatives if there are not facts to back-up the case. Analysis continues to be pursued ad infinitum (many organisations have missed major opportunities as a result).

deferred decision-making’: a continuation of paralysis by analysis. Decisions are only made when there is enough data to support them, so consequently no decision is EVER made.

If we can’t measure it we can’t manage it’: a mentality which although apparently plausible is simply not true; it just gives an excuse for not attempting to manage difficult things like behaviour, culture, trust, respect, potential, commitment, opinion, loyalty and reputation: ‘the sky is not less blue….

Management by numbers’: a command-and-control approach that expects people to jump through hoops to reach their targets. This only drives behaviour to get the numbers, but if those numbers measure the wrong things…

Game playing’ (or at least one variant): distorting numbers to make an argument (see Mark Twain’s quote); this can be creatively negative or positive, but both risk giving a warped sense of reality, and is an approach which is often fairly annoying for other people  and undermines trust and collaboration.

For the university in the case study (and it is a real institution), successful management-by-fact required a fundamental foundation of shared values & mutual trust between colleagues. Trust is important – it helps to avoid playing games with numbers or using numbers as sticks to beat over the heads of other people. Trust enables us to look at the facts together and have a discussion (see Angell’s suggestion above). We should use what we know and be ready to discuss the issues; as the case study university itself prefers to describe it; management with facts.


Further Reading:

Change Academy Recommended Resources, http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/documents/changeacademy/2010/Amended_resources/ChangeAcademy-RecommendedResources.pdf

Pfeffer, J. and Sutton, R.I. (2006) Why Managing by Facts Works, Strategy & Business enews, Booz & co. http://www.strategy-business.com/media/file/enews-06-29-06.pdf