Strategic decision-making is one of the critical activities carried out in the workplace that covers a range of arenas from employee engagement to talent management. However, this process demands that we take a step back into the theory of decision making at large, understand the core of what has worked and what doesn’t and then take a step forward. At People Matters Workforce Productivity Conference, Dave Snowden, Founder & Chief Scientific Officer, Cognitive Edge shares his incredible knowledge on the science of making decisions and how that very knowledge empowers us to do better.
Theories that inform decision-making among individuals:
The overall approach that Snowden has been developing since the last 30-40 years is what he would call ‘naturalised sense making’. There are five established schools of sense making which are geared towards how we make sense of the world and act in it. A key concept of this is also sufficiency which takes into account our knowledge capacity and whether we know enough to make the right decision. From an executive and employee point of view, we sometimes have to make decisions in spite of not having a complete understanding of the situation at hand. It’s a pragmatic theory because it enables us to act in different contexts.
Picking up an experiment from neuro-science, Snowden tells us that when radiologists were given a series of anomalies to detect of which the last image was that of a gorilla, 83% of these radiologists did not report that the last anomaly was a gorilla.Of the 17% who did, once they started interacting with the 83% who didn’t, they started to feel that they had witnessed wrong. This is what can be called ‘inattentional blindness’ which cannot be easily trained out because of its huge evolutionary value. What’s interesting about this concept is that it informs us that our decisions are not as rational and empirical as we believe them to be, we as individuals scan at maximum only 4-5% of the data available which then triggers a host of memories from our brain, body and social interactions. It is these partial memories that are blended together to build patterns.
Our decisions tend to be made on the first pattern we detect, so rather than a best-fit pattern approach, we’re carrying out a first-fit pattern approach. This directly attests to Clayton Christensen’s work on why companies fail. They don’t fail because they are incompetent, they fail because they were too competent in their old paradigms, as pointed out by Snowden.
The importance of real-time situational assessments in decision making:
To find perspectives of a situation in real time, what can be done is building what Snowden calls the ‘human sensor network.’ To carry this out, what one can do when faced with a difficult or intractable problem is not to conduct research but rather present the problems as an infographic to the entire workforce. This can be accompanied with building networks among academics and other relevant social groups to get more perspectives. All of them including the workforce and the informal network of academics will be asked to interpret the data in real time and add their political micro-narratives to explain their interpretation from which one can build a map called ‘fitness landscapes’, a term borrowed from cognitive theory.
These landscapes reveal dense patterns in the form of contours, if the contours are too tight, there is a strong opinion. If it’s otherwise, then that is not the case. These outlier groups, the ones who divert from the pattern are the ones Executives need to go and talk to. This real time decision support is critical for talent management as well because you’re not simply surveying your staff, but engaging them in situational assessments and decision-making. In practice, you’re asking your staff to develop micro-scenarios for improvement within 10-15 minutes in real time based on real time needs of the executives.
Spotting outliers and detective patterns is a critical element of what Snowden calls abductive research. The solution to ‘inattentional blindness’ then is workforce engagement and wider network engagement to get access to as many perspectives as possible.
How failure transforms and adds value to our workplace strategies:
‘In all of the work I've done over the years in companies, the dominant stories of the watercooler, the stories of the private chat in the Zoom conversation are not stories of success, they're actually stories of failure. Human beings actually pay more cognitive attention to failure than they do to success. And the evolutionary reason is that paying attention to failure is actually more successful in evolutionary terms. Because failure repeats, but success doesn't,’ shares Snowden.
He goes on to add that a worst practice database has more value for employees, when they are given the chance to tell stories of the flipside even in a fictional sense. Rather than going into detail of what happened, building alternative timelines also adds value because it allows us to imagine, innovate. At IBM, when Snowden and his colleagues looked into alternative timelines and stories of failure, they learned more about what to build into practice for the future. When conducting human control simulation games, it was found that after three rounds of failure, people were able to scan 20-30% more data for making a decision as opposed to when they succeeded. In other words, failure is the key.
On complex adaptive systems theory and trans-silos informal networks:
According to Snowden, complex adaptive systems theory is replacing systems thinking in terms of management theory. The best way of understanding complexity is to recognise it as a science of entangled systems, a science of uncertainty. And although everything within a system tends to be so inherently tangled that you can’t anticipate everything, that doesn’t mean you cannot manage it.
Counterfactuals which refers to situations that everyone within the team can agree on not letting happen is an aspect that can be managed. The second is enabling constraints because it is only in the presence of constraints that change happens. In line with this thought, we should also change our mindset because it’s far more easier and ethical to change who and how people interact rather than changing people.
Another element that Snowden emphasises is the creation of dense informal networks. This is because in an informal network, trust exists by nature of people’s choices which isn’t the case in a formal set-up. And it is through these networks that one can manage silos. One cannot really do away with silos because they allow knowledge to be handled at the right level of abstraction and codification is what Snowden strongly believes in.
Highly orchestrated short term engaging processes carried out a couple of days can force trans-silo knowledge in a way visible to executives. For new joinees, keeping a learning journal where they record their day to day tasks will also provide data. Along with this, giving them opportunities to interview senior leaders will ensure that the senior management is involved and an exchange of valuable information takes place. This practice when expanded can help build company wide communication channels and informal networks across silos.
Snowden concludes this by discussion by talking about the Cynefin Network which was created by him with the intention to identify different contexts. 'As we inherit cultures, we inherit ways of working. And we need methods and tools which allow that diversity to take place,' points out Snowden. He further advises that the journey ahead for companies demands mapping, they must map where they are, their constraints and its variability as well as patterns of beliefs and attitudes. The journeys must start with a sense of direction rather than artificially fitting goals into the system.