Saturday, February 19, 2011

Individual and Collective Decision Making

Having examined the importance of taking ownership of decisions in our work area, let us look at some types of decision making. We will look at both individual decision making and collective decision making.

Individual Decision Making -
As individuals we take decisions all the time. There are many theories on rational and irrational decisions taken by individuals. We seem to be hard-wired towards irrational decision making. Human beings are emotional and emotions lead to irrational decision making. It is application of thought process which leads us towards rational decision making.
Remember we are not equating rational or irrational with right or wrong here. We are only examining whether an application of logic would still hold up the initial choice.
As an example think up an initial list of things you would do if you had a million dollars this instant. Don't deliberate too much. Now go over this list once more thinking over the returns each decision would have given you in a year. Get the point?

The types of decisions an individual takes can be categorised by the area of influence.
I for I
These are decisions that individuals take which affect only themselves. These decisions and actions are mostly taken to satisfy basic needs in Maslow's hierarchy.

I for YOU
This type of decision mostly has the characteristic of a person in a position of authority taking a decision for or regarding someone under his authority. e.g. a Parent choosing a school for his ward, Teacher assigning a reading assignment to student, Supervisor allocating work.

I for US
Decision taken by one individual and conveyed to another but impacting both of them. Like the above category this could be taken by someone in authority as a leadership position often facilitates the authority to take such a decision. Maslow's metaneeds are mostly likely to be encountered at this level.
A deviation from the top-bottom approach could be seen here by the subordinate deciding to dispute or refuse the I for YOU decision, which then transforms it into a I for US discussion.

I for THEM
A detached level of decision making, most likely to see rational thought process applied. This level of decision making can be made only if the individual is in a position of absolute trust or absolute authority. This could be a judge deciding a case, the finance minister deciding taxes to be applied, a consultant deciding the strategy for his client.

Collective Decision Making -
Collective decision making is not the sum total of all individual decisions. This is all about influencing a group of people to agree on a particular action. Preferably we get a larger group of people that agrees on the action than the number of people who disagrees. In the absence of which we get a disruption.

Collective decision making is not necessarily more rational than individual decision making. Nor does it tend to be right more times than wrong as compared to individual decision making. Rather the opposite usually applies. Think of the politicians we choose to elect as a people.

It is often quite easy for assertive individuals to get groups of people to agree on their particular perspective. Groups tend to agree quicker when they see their choices already made for them, and the preferred path is perceived to have more pros than cons. This kind of influencing often avoids brainstorming, collection of views or thorough deliberation of options. So beware when you see the next presentation with three choices on what you should do. It only means that ten other choices have not yet been thought of.

The areas where we are most likely to be asked to get collective decisions made are in the realm of US for US. The participants in such a collective decision making process would most likely be the stakeholders likely to be impacted.
Some factors that make a joint decision difficult to arrive at are -
  • Equally strong opposing forces in the group
  • Conflicting interest of different stakeholders
  • Unwillingness to yield ground to accomodate other interests
  • Expression of emotions
  • Individual prejudices and bias
Of course all the factors mentioned in the previous post about not taking ownership apply to the group as much as the individual.

Being in the driver's seat
Having known all these facts, how do we drive decisions in group environments that we encounter at work?

Clarify your intention and objective
As long as your goal is seen to be in the interest of the larger community, the greater the chances of swinging the decision in your favor.

Increase your area of influence
The more you collaborate and network, the more likely that the group which is responsible for making the decision is aware of your intentions.

Pay attention to the presentation - it matters
Focus on the positive message and drive home the advantage of taking the decision rather than not taking the decision. Try this - In a project with 90% probability of attaining objectives, talk to one group about the 90% success rate and talk to another group about the 10% failure rate. Guess which group is likely to vote in favor?

Debate is better than agreement
It does not help take better decisions by being aggressive and suppressing dissent. Assertive and open debate is far better than mute acceptance of actions.

Individual or Collective?
While considering whether to promote group decisions or individual decisions, the factors to evaluate would be the impact area of the action. If it is going to affect a cross section of people then it is better to achieve consensus to avoid alienation.

Collective decision making can lead to advantages of brainstorming, fresh ideas, consideration of conflicting views, evaluating all options, identifying risks and bringing diverse skills to the table but it can as easily disintegrate into conflicts, analysis paralysis, risk-aversion, safe and tried path thinking, killing innovation.