The College of Idaho on Business

Scott Johnson: Why unanimity, speed may breed bad decisions

Director of The College of Idaho's Business and Accounting DepartmentMay 21, 2014 

Johnson, Scott

Scott Johnson

DARIN OSWALD — doswald@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

It's election time. One of the key attributes we seek in candidates is sound decision-making on our behalf. We also expect this ability in top-level business leaders. But what is it about making decisions that matters most?

If government officials get it "wrong," especially in the opinion of the opposition, they can be condemned for lack of foresight and inability to predict and control the outcomes. Perceived strength is in being right, not admitting that you might be wrong.

In the business world, many companies have it right in at least allowing employees to fail - if helpful learning results from taking a risk or trying a new approach. This is where the process is more important than the outcome. Sound decision-making is not about quickly finding the single solution upon which everyone agrees. Speed is not always power, unanimity is not necessarily strength - yet many still admire the fast and the sure.

Consider that business managers spend most of their time solving problems, frequently using an analytical approach - fast and sure - when creativity might be appropriate for more innovative solutions. But creativity also takes more time and leads to novel ideas that seem less certain.

The first steps should be defining the problem to ensure shared understanding from the perspective of affected stakeholders, and then generating and evaluating multiple alternatives.

Along the way, we must be vigilant against conceptual blocks such as:

• Constancy - sticking to one point of view and being unable to change perspectives.

• Vertical thinking - not considering alternative ways of defining a problem, and pursuing solutions down a narrow and undeviating path.

• Commitment - an inability or unwillingness to change perspectives or approaches once someone has taken a stance on a particular point of view, definition or solution.

If we make winners of people who stay committed to their original perspective and follow it through no matter what, we can create a win-at-all-costs mentality - which also costs others who are affected by a bad decision.

Such "winners" put more effort into defending their decisions through escalation of commitment - the sunk-cost fallacy. They stick to a course of action as if nothing around the initial problem has changed or will change. They discount any new evidence that suggests the costs of this course of action outweigh the proposed benefits of their solution - and indeed, actually increase their investment in their decision.

Through confirmation bias, they selectively interpret information to support their position and discount all else. In a group context, this can be reinforced through suppression of dissenting viewpoints and creating an illusion of unanimity - the classic symptoms of groupthink.

Sound familiar?

So, how did you decide who to vote for on Election Day? Did you stick to an original course of action no matter what, or did you consider new information that could change your mind and lead to a better outcome for everyone?

Wouldn't it be nice if our elected officials did the same?

sajohnson@collegeofidaho.edu; 459-5219

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