The following text was very much inspired by Peter M. Senge‘s book The Fifth Discipline. The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation published by Doubleday. A book that is well worth reading! Thanks to Stuart Goold for pointing the book out to me.
Decision making is not only based on concrete facts but also depends very heavily on our perceptions and understanding of the situation. Very often these perceptions are influenced by a number of underlying mental models or assumptions that are not always clearly perceived as such. By their very nature, such assumptions generally go unquestioned. They are seen as true reflections of the way things are. They are often taken for granted to such an extent that we may not even be aware of them. When such assumptions are called into question, those holding them often feel personally attacked and go out of their way to defend their point of view.
When winning can be losing
Attacking other people’s positions has become one of our main ways of reaching decisions. Each party defends his or her point of view. In many cases the identity and credibility of parties involved depend on their maintaining a conflictual situation. The negotiations between trade unions, management and government spring to mind as a typical example. The theory being that the best idea will win out. But what happens if the best long-term idea – as is often the case – involves parts of several different people’s ideas? Reaching such an idea is nigh on impossible in the confrontational mode.
Could not the decision making process be favourably transformed if we were able to surface and discuss differing ways of perceiving the world? What would such a way of doing things entail? First of all, being on the look-out for our assumptions. For example, when I write above that trade unions, management and governments necessarily negotiate in a conflictual mode, that generalisation may well prove to be untrue in a number of cases. I honestly don’t have the information to assert it as true. We constantly need to question what we say and our motivations in saying it. To have the courage and determination to do so is not easy. And doing so, if the context is not conducive to such a questioning, the result can be quite counterproductive. It requires a shared vision that the quest for “truth” is worth it in the long run and amongst other things the conviction , that, in knowing the “truth”, better decisions can be taken.
Pushing back horizons
One of the difficulties with assumptions is that they are invariably based on partial information. We see what we want to see. Unfortunately, deciding on local, short-term perspectives can produce long-term results that are quite the contrary to what was planned. There is a need to situate our understanding of a particular situation in a wider perspective especially when it is a question of complex issues. There is a need to adopt a more systemic approach, going beyond a logic based on the one-way move from cause to effect, to seeing things as constantly inter-related in on-going processes.
Another condition necessary to improve decision-making in a changing world concerns the nature of the exchange of ideas and perceptions. Much exchange goes on already, thanks in particular to the use of the Internet, but that exchange is often centred around advocating ideas where the most forceful idea will win out. Such a strategy leads to little energy being given over to questioning one’s own ideas or listening to alternative ideas of others. There is however a more philosophical sub-culture on the Internet even if it is in the minority. What is also required, for satisfactory decision-making and the subsequent implementation of those decisions, is the possibility to mutually question ideas and perceptions without feeling personally attacked. The conviction here is that, given the right conditions, a group of people can reach a clearer collective understanding of the situation than individuals could on their own and that this understanding enhances decisions.
The open quest
Learning – for decision-making is above all a learning process – involves constantly questioning the way we see things; a sort of quest for truth, knowing that truth is not an absolute value, once found, always the same. This quest for truth is an on-going enquiry in which we continuously question the evident, especially in our own thoughts and perceptions. In accepting that our assumptions may not necessarily be an accurate representation of reality and being open about that uncertainty, we also accept to be vulnerable. Accepting to be vulnerable requires a certain feeling of security. Not the kind of security that springs from (self-)complacency and mutual avoidance of difficult questions. Rather the security that comes from a common quest, a common vision of the road to follow. Two things can wreak havoc in these efforts to understand together: competition and judgement.
Competition is often seen as a motor for learning. While knowing is essential to winning out over others, seeking to always be the winner is not always conducive to learning. Being able to learn means recognising that we do not know all and that we can learn a great deal from all sorts of people including those who are “not so good as us”. That doesn’t mean that we should not continually strive to be better, but that competition needs to be set aside in learning. Clearly the word “learning” here does not refer to the accumulation of facts and figures, but rather to an on-going process in which our ever deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us stands us in good stead to act and be.
“Learning” is commonly seen as the result of “teaching”, where teaching involves imparting knowledge and learning means accumulating that knowledge. One person knows, the other doesn’t. The process is one-way. And to certify that the person has “learnt” correctly the teacher judges the learner’s knowledge. Much emphasis is put on this evaluation, often more than is put on learning itself. [Isn’t it difficult to argue a point without basing our arguments on deep-held assumptions – in this case, an in-grained negative vision of school and a distaste for its marking systems.] I am aware that there are teachers who don’t act this way, but the schooling system as I have experienced it in England, France and Switzerland still very much follows this model. As the idea of adult learning gives way to the concept of life-long learning [at least, that is what a number of major players would like to see], the learnt knowledge is seen as a commodity, a saleable object and as such the employer/buyer needs the value of that knowledge to be certified. Much work is being done on how to evaluate and certify life-long learning. Yet my hypothesis is that judgement, in which the idea that the person judging is in some way superior and knows better, is not conducive to mutual questioning of the models that underlie our thinking about a particular issue. It associates far too strongly the idea of learning with that of being evaluated. That doesn’t mean that the ideas developed in dialogue should not be evaluated, but that there are moments when judgement has to be suspended to be able to appreciate the perspective of others and to be able to perceive what there is of value in that perspective.
The need for another level of thinking
In being explicit about our assumptions and in talking about mechanisms involved in reaching decisions, we shift momentarily the discussion to a quite different level: thinking about thinking. This meta-level thinking can irritate those people whose credo is “action”. They have no time for such things. Time is short. Such thinking gets in the way. Results are what is needed. Is not this “action” perspective a good example of how an apparently well-meaning strategy may turn out to be misguided in the long run? In not taking the time to question the tacit mental models that underlie their action they run a serious risk of misinterpreting information available and making inappropriate decisions.
So what now?
So what is required to improve decision-making in our complex, fast changing world?
- Realise that decisions are very much effected by personal perceptions and tacit mental models even those that seem quite objective.
- Create contexts in which people feel safe to uncover their assumptions and question them.
- Base this “context” on a shared vision of the need for an on-going quest for “truth”.
- Suspended competition in this context and momentarily set aside judgement.
- Start simply from people’s perceptions of the way things are and the words they use to express them.
- Adopt a systemic approach, situating things in a larger, longer-term perspective.
- Seek to spread the culture of this quest for a clearer understanding of the way things are in decision-making.