Shared histories: Making decisions from the ‘sum of the parts’ and not just ‘some of the parts’

Decisions based on inputs from a few ‘decision makers’ take account of a small part of the problem, whereas leveraging the inputs of all stakeholders by building a shared history uncovers the whole problem, and provides the acknowledgement that creates buy-in and maximises effectiveness.

“Knowledge is in the end based on acknowledgement”, Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wide participation in decision making, which captures the insights and buy-in from those who have to make it happen, only works if they have a shared view of the options, assumptions, and the problem. In the ancient democracies of Greece and Rome this shared view came from the senators’ shared history (see previous article here). And the process of debating and voting gave senators an acknowledgement of their input, which created buy-in for the eventual collective decision. With the diversity of the teams needed to address the complexities of the modern world, this shared history does not exist – it must be created.

Few would argue with this as an ideal. But the time and effort required is often used as an excuse not to try. “You can’t make a decision with more than 6 people” is a common refrain. “Decisive leadership” and “let’s crack on” are too often (subconscious) euphemisms for “let’s ignore the complexities”.

Decision making in the military and emergency services, seen as the very model of “decisive leadership” and “cracking-on”, are actually excellent examples of decisions built on shared histories and acknowledgment of stakeholders’ inputs.

Gary Klein developed the ‘Recognition Primed Decision making’ (RPD) model to explain decision making in time-critical, high-pressure situations by observing fire-fighters, operators in nuclear facilities and the military. In simple terms, RPD involves comparing the situation to past experiences. If the situation matches a past experience they choose the course of action that gave the desired outcome last time i.e. pattern recognition. If it does not match, they mentally simulate the outcomes of different courses of action until they find one that their experience says is acceptable.

This might appear to be a decision with limited input. But, in practice, there is a built-in process for gaining and acknowledging stakeholder inputs, and building a shared history.

When a decision needs to be made, the decision maker usually gets information to understand the current situation from their team-mates (the ‘stakeholders’ who will act on the decision) via the radio, hand signals and basic shouting and pointing. And the simple act of saying “roger that” on the radio, or giving a thumbs-up, acknowledges their input to the decision.

Prior to the situation, these teams have usually trained together and learnt what each other’s preferences, habits, abilities and likely decisions are going to be. They have a ‘shared history’ on which their assumptions and expectations are based, so that their level of trust in the decision that is subsequently made is high.

Alas, executives often like to mimic the apparent decisiveness of military and emergency service decision makers, without building the shared history and acknowledgements that underpin military and emergency decision making. They effectively take some of the stakeholders’ inputs, from the few who form the decision making group, and ignore the rest. True buy-in, and effective decisions and actions, comes from taking the sum of the stakeholders’ inputs and creating a truly shared view that integrates all the parts of the problem space and acknowledges the contribution of the full range of stakeholders.

In the next article we will look at how executives can create a picture of the problem-space as a mechanism for building a shared history.


All contents © 2018 DIEMconsulting Ltd. All rights reserved

Site by Dash