Complexity and participation in decision-making

The complexity of the modern world has led us to rely on groups, on the inputs and resources of many stakeholders, to help deal with the different parts of a problem. But because of their different view-points, just agreeing what the problem looks like can be difficult enough, let alone reaching a decision on what to do about it.

It is clearly important to involve a wide range of people in decisions on ‘when’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ to change. Yet, in my experience, senior executives often try to limit involvement to around 6 people, due to the effort needed to manage high levels of participation. But this short-cut on making the decision severely hampers the implementation of the decision. The complexity that requires lots of people to be involved also means that, if they do not ‘buy-in’ to the decision, they can easily block it – either passively or actively.

“A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” Steve Jobs

Wide participation in decision-making is the best way to maximise the buy-in of those stakeholders you need to act on any future decision. But participation is just the first aspect of successful group decision-making. The three other aspects are; method, mechanisms and inputs.

The form of democracy practiced by the Greek city states (or ‘Polis’) of the 3rd century BC has always struck me as the best example of effective stakeholder decision-making, not least because the four aspects are well integrated. Participation was based on having sufficient income. But the reason for the income criteria was that only a man of a certain level of income could afford the helmet, armour, shield, spear and sword to take his place in the city’s hoplite phalanx, the key military formation of the time. This made implementation of a city-level decision a matter of life and death for the voting citizen, especially given that the key votes related to treaties and alliances, and the declaration of war. The democratic Greek ‘polis’ ensured that those implementing the decision participated in the decision.

The ‘method’ began with speeches proposing and seconding a course of action i.e. ‘option presentation’. This was followed by speeches putting alternative views and raising questions i.e. ‘assessment through debate’. And finally, the ‘mechanism’ of the final decision or conclusion was the vote. The key factor that made this process work, however, is that the voters had similar backgrounds and experience, so that the debate was based on shared assumptions and beliefs i.e. shared and agreed ‘inputs’. Clearly there would be disagreements of the pros and cons of different options, but the overall ‘view of the problem space’ was very similar because they had a ‘shared history’.

In the next article we will talk more about the concept of a ‘shared history’, as the source and form of the ‘input’ to the decision-making process, and how this helps to create a decision which the team naturally buys-into and implements.


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