You're sitting alone in the Oval Office, late in the evening, studying a new intelligence report. The implications of its disturbing findings, and the decisions you must make based on those findings, may affect the lives of millions of people.
Unfortunately, the report's findings are unclear. The information itself is ambiguous, and the carefully crafted bureaucratic language leaves the document's meaning wide open to debate. Its creators have billed it as "the best intelligence estimate we are able to assemble at this time."
You look up from your desk as your executive assistant escorts four cabinet members and two national security experts into the room. You already know they disagree vehemently amongst themselves about what the report's findings mean and what they think you must do about the issue. They can't all be right, and they expect you to resolve the matter.
Welcome to the world of executive decision making.
Similar episodes play out thousands of times a day in all sectors of business and government, in all countries. The issues, the information, the implications, and the participants are different for each situation, but the template has remained the same for thousands of years. Decision makers must deal with fuzzy information, fuzzy inplications, and fuzzy thinking, all leading to high-risk decisions that turn out to be little more than educated gambles.
Executive decision making has long been approached as a matter of advocacy and argumentation. An issue surfaces, people take sides, and the chief has to choose a course of action that makes all of the factions--but one--wrong. This win-lose psychology has dominated organizational thinking for so long that it's the only way many of the movers and shakers in a typical enterprise know how to make decisions.
The assumption seems to be that putting some smart, experienced, well-informed people into a room and letting them argue for their favorite course of action will allow the best option to emerge. Some executives openly acknowledge that they rely on "natural competition" to tell them what decisions to make, as though the most-persuasive arguments will always lead to the best course of action simply by surviving the debating process.
The evidence for that way of making decisions and setting policies is not very reassuring. One only has to look at some of the more colossal failed decisions--the disastrous choice by American leaders to pursue the war in Vietnam, the pouring of billions of dollars of investment capital into imaginary dot-com businesses, and any number of misguided corporate mergers--to question the wisdom of decision making by advocacy.
We must ask, If the various advocates of the conflicting options are all smart, experienced, and well-informed, why do they disagree so completely? Wouldn't they all have thought the issue through carefully and come to approximately the same--"best"--conclusion?
The answer to that crucial question lies in the structure of the human brain and the way it processes information.
First We Decide, Then We Justify
Most human beings actually decide before they think. When any human being--executive, specialized expert, or person in the street--encounters a complex issue and forms an opinion, often within a matter of seconds, how thoroughly has he or she explored the implications of the various courses of action? Answer: not very thoroughly. Very few people, no matter how intelligent or experienced, can take inventory of the many branching possibilities, possible outcomes, side effects, and undesired consequences of a policy or a course of action in a matter of seconds. Yet, those who pride themselves on being decisive often try to do just that. And once their brains lock onto an opinion, most of their thinking thereafter consists of finding support for it.
A very serious side effect of argumentative decision making can be a lack of support for the chosen course of action on the part of the "losing" faction. …