Four Blueprints for Ensemble Decision-Making

By Thomas, Robert J.; Bellin, Joshua et al. | Ivey Business Journal Online, May/June 2013 | Go to article overview
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Four Blueprints for Ensemble Decision-Making

Thomas, Robert J., Bellin, Joshua, Jules, Claudy, Lynton, Nandani, Ivey Business Journal Online

When making a decision, two heads can be better than one, but two - or even more - perspectives are definitely better than one, especially in today's dynamic and widely different global markets. These authors call it ensemble decision making and they describe the three steps for making it work.

How do decisions get made at the top of global companies? With individual leaders at the top of global organizations increasingly unable to grasp the full complexity of the firm's worldwide operations, the task more now than ever falls to groups of leaders at the top.

That poses a challenge, however. To be properly informed about risks and opportunities in diverse markets, these leaders need to form a group that is itself diverse in terms of its viewpoints, perspectives, experiences and expertise. Ideally, members would be geographically distributed as well. And at the same time, this group needs to be perfectly synchronized - able to work together to deliberate, solve problems, make decisions and direct the global organization. These two imperatives - for group diversity on the one hand and for synchronization on the other - are often in conflict. The more perspectives and viewpoints at the table, the more disagreements and conflicts a leadership group might expect.

The way for groups of leaders at the top to overcome this difficulty is to lead together as "leadership ensembles" - groups of leaders who are flexible enough to configure themselves according to the type of decision that is needed. Just as a cellist takes on different roles depending on whether he or she is playing with a quartet, a chamber orchestra, or a full orchestra, so too with today's leaders. For example, a group of leaders may need to debate a controversial change in company direction, draw on close relationships to quickly ratify a decision or discuss a range of possible solutions to a problem. Each activity requires a different ensemble configuration. This article describes and discusses four patterns of global decision-making.


Consisting of the top one or two percent of executives and experts at a company, ensembles bridge a host of differences - in language, culture, time zone, experience, and more. They also make it easy for groups of leaders to configure themselves according to the task at hand. Sometimes, consensus is the goal; at other times, tough debate is required. In some cases, it's critical for the team to make a decision; in others, the decision has been made, but leadership needs to absorb it and explain it far and wide.

Consider how top leaders at global beverage giant Diageo routinely change depending on the group's objective. Gareth Williams, head of HR, notes that when the executive team gets together to assess the company's performance and operations, the agenda is often a routine one, involving a fairly predictable array of faces around the table. But when their discussion turns to the question of future growth, the composition of the group changes to include regional executives. The group's behavior shifts as well, with more viewpoints expressed. For example, a series of discussions examining consumer and value-creation dynamics through a diverse set of quantitative and qualitative data ended up challenging team members' past assumptions. Top leaders decided together to make a shiftin strategic intent and investment, targeted at the emerging middle classes in the world's high-growth markets.

As this example suggests, effective ensemble leadership teams are characterized by three defining attributes, which we also identified in our research findings. First, rather than perfect a single decision-making routine and establish fixed governance roles for the sake of speed and efficiency, they exhibit disciplined agility. That is, they enlist the widest array of perspectives while also maintaining discipline and speaking with one voice. Second, rather than react to events as they unfold, they exercise foresight and strive to change before they are forced to respond to events outside their control.

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