The highest-quality decisions are made by groups of people that can set aside their egos and collaboratively identify the best possible outcomes for the customer and business.
They meet, share their unique perspectives, rigorously debate the options, and work together to determine the best solution. And once a decision is made, the group aligns and commits to the solution regardless of how the idea was generated.
This approach — dubbed inquiry decision-making by Harvard Business School professors David A. Garvin and Michael Roberto — has been proven to produce the highest-quality decisions. Yet in my experience, I have found it difficult for groups of people to approach problems from this perspective.
Many of our decisions are made via debates between individuals fiercely defending their own ideas. They aim to score points in the discussion, working hard to get someone important in the room say “great idea!” to what they have to say. They aren’t listening to the perspectives of others; instead, they are jockeying to say something that sounds like what other people want to hear.
This approach is called “advocacy decision-making” and leads to lower quality decisions, emotionally-charged environments, and less collective buy-in after decisions are made:
When a group takes an advocacy perspective, participants approach decision making as a contest. Participants are passionate about their preferred solutions and therefore stand firm in the face of disagreement. That level of passion makes it nearly impossible to remain objective, limiting people’s ability to pay attention to opposing arguments. Their goal, after all, is to make a compelling case, not to convey an evenhanded or balanced view.
We’ve all seen just how toxic this approach to decision-making can be. Yet why do we continue to approach problem-solving in this way? Why is it so hard for us to check our egos at the door and work together to solve problems?
I believe it is a result of our schooling, our reward structures, and our subconscious biases.
And by changing what we value, letting go of our ideas, and valuing our relationships to each other, we will make better decisions together.
We were raised in a “right or wrong” mindset
As students, we weren’t rewarded for asking the best questions or for facilitating the most thought-provoking and substantive debate. Instead, we were rewarded for being right:
Our educational system is rooted in the construct of right and wrong. We are rewarded for what are deemed to be correct answers and the ensuing higher grades, which generally lead to more successful lives. Being right affirms and inflates our sense of self-worth. As students we learn to avoid as best we can the embarrassment of being wrong. Getting the right answer becomes the primary purpose of our education.
But we have to move away from this mindset, as our future problems aren’t like a pop quiz with multiple choice answers. Instead, we have to work through our complex problems and arrive at decisions with all of the available data points, with all of the diverse perspectives available to us.
We reward people based on their ideas
Innovation is the priceless commodity at work today, so we reward individuals who come up with innovative ideas. Those that can consistently generate compelling concepts are branded as strategic thinkers and are promoted to enact their visions across the organization.
But these strategic thinkers have often rigged the system to their advantage. They deeply understand the incentive structure and how organizations compensate for good ideas, so they make sure to use cross-functional meetings as a personal platform to demonstrate their very smart brain.
These con artists approach the meeting as a “land grab” opportunity, looking to be on the “right side” of as many decisions as possible. They’ll involve themselves in every meaningful discussion with no regard to efficiency, feasibility, or nuance. They’ll talk over others, hog the spotlight, and deflate the energy and enthusiasm of everyone else in the room.
This poisonous strategy is a very slippery slope towards advocacy-based decision-making. These individuals are making statements not to facilitate the best discussion, but for them to be seen in the most positive light.
Let’s stop putting up with this nonsense. We need to call out people IN THE MOMENT who approach decision-making as a zero-sum game and build mechanisms for calling them out.
We want to stay self-consistent
When we make decisions, we tend to favor solutions that reinforce our current worldview and are consistent with our previous decisions.
This bias — known as the self-consistent bias — was explored by researchers Long Luu and Alan Stocker of the University of Pennsylvania. They discovered that study participants were influenced by judgments made in the past; to remain consistent with ourselves, we alter perception accordingly:
“Our tests validated the self-consistent model by showing that the bias pattern depended on the subjects’ prior knowledge of the stimulus, and that the subjects treated their decision as if it were absolutely correct,” says first author Long Luu, graduate student in the CPC Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania. “Together, the results suggest that our decisions can substantially change our immediate memory of what we have just perceptually experienced in an attempt to make our experience consistent with our preceding decisions.”
This bias lends itself to advocacy-based decision-making. We hate hearing information that disrupts our current world view. As a decision-maker, it can be difficult to accept new information that fundamentally modifies how you think about your company or product.
But we all have different, unique perspectives to share. And we are all working from different maps that all aren’t the territory. So we should fight this impulse and be open to new perspectives.
Transitioning to an inquiry-based decision-making model is an important challenge that we must face. Here are some steps you can take that will help:
Value quality discussions, not individual ideas.
Instead of saying “great idea!” and judging individuals’ contributions in real-time, focus on facilitating awesome, constructive debates. And if there are individuals who do a great job encouraging others to talk, let’s reward them with praise.
Let go of individual ownership of ideas.
Our ideas aren’t ours and we shouldn’t give or receive credit for them. Our ideas come from an entire lifetime of experiences, conversations, and accumulated knowledge and from hundreds of thousands of unique voices that have influenced us in the past. Let’s think of ourselves as idea conduits, not owners.
Be open to what we DON’T know.
There’s stuff we know, and stuff we don’t know. Warren Buffett famously called this the circle of competence:
What an investor needs is the ability to correctly evaluate selected businesses. Note that word “selected”: You don’t have to be an expert on every company, or even many. You only have to be able to evaluate companies within your circle of competence. The size of that circle is not very important; knowing its boundaries, however, is vital.
We all should reflect and understand the boundaries of our own circle of competence, re-categorizing and re-structuring the contents based on new information. With this, we can have better dialogue and discussions, letting go of what we don’t know and trusting others with more advanced knowledge on other subjects.
Value your relationship with others
Finally, inquiry decision-making will become easier when everyone in the room genuinely cares about one another. We should make decisions like we do in healthy, thriving personal relationships. We shouldn’t grandstand or score points, but instead discover what is in the best interest for everyone. Like our partners, we should genuinely value what everyone has to say and let them feel truly heard.
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