Better judgment through participative decision making

Human judgment is frail and fettered, no matter which humans the judgment comes from, according to Thomas Davenport and Brook Manville in their book Judgment Calls: 12 Stories of Big Decisions and the Teams That Got Them Right. The antidote to relying on the imperfect judgment of one fallible person is for organisations to build decision-making capacity, tapping into the expertise of a broad range of people.

Rather than using empirical research, the authors use stories from 12 different organisations to illustrate their thesis. Part One contains stories about participative problem solving processes from NASA, a home-building company, and McKinsey & Company. Part Two contains stories about the use of technology and analytics to aid decision making, from a health-care organisation, a technology company and a school system. Part Three contains stories about organisational culture guiding decision-making, from ancient Athens, the Vanguard Group, and EMC. Part Four has stories about leaders with participative decision-making styles, from a media company, a philanthropic organisation and a niche product company.

It may well be a lot more difficult to make an interesting story out of a participative decision-making process than out of a decision made by a lone hero, but I personally found some of the stories unconvincing. For example, the NASA story relates to a decision with a positive outcome, contrasting with earlier NASA decisions with disastrous outcomes. However, the bad and good decisions all seem to have been reached through participative processes; the difference seems to be more in the weight given to different opinions than in the participative nature of the processes. On the other hand, I found the stories about strong organisational culture and participative leadership styles both more interesting and more persuasive.

There are various objections that could be made to the authors’ thesis. It would be useful to see some sort of empirical evidence. Some decisions are clearly better because of a consultative process, but others are clearly worse, either because of groupthink or because an individual decision maker knows better than anyone else (e.g. Steve Jobs and the iPad). The high cost of participative decision processes can outweigh the benefits; for example, the Athenian style of democracy in which every man got to vote has long since been abandoned as impractical.

Notwithstanding these objections, in my opinion there is a lot of merit in the ideas raised by the authors, and the book provides a useful challenge to the thinking of organisational leaders.

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