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A Decision-Making Master Class at #TSAConf2016

Professor Michael Roberto Shares His A+ Game with TechServe Alliance

Professor and author Michael Roberto of Bryant University began his keynote address to the 2016 TechServe Alliance Conference by calling upon the audience to consider an important decision-making question: Are you capturing the wisdom of the crowd? Sharing the data-proven example that an audience will collectively get the right answer to a quiz question 91% of the time, Roberto was challenging the leaders, managers, business owners, rising stars, and contributors of all kinds in the ballroom to consider whether or not they accept input and welcome ideas as they make key decisions.

If there is powerful wisdom in groups, how are businesses making the most of their most important group (employees) to improve decision making? Are they missing opportunities to share knowledge, challenge norms, and welcome divergent thinking that could inform high-impact choices? Here are some of the many insights Roberto provided in his talk, “The Art of Critical Decision Making,” along with tips on what a business can do better to leverage the knowledge and experience of the many in order to make better business choices.

The Traps

According to Roberto, there are five common decision-making traps businesses and their leaders often fall into:

  1. The Sunk Cost Trap - Every business will at one time or another put time, money, and resources into an investment that they will never get back. Perhaps it was an employee, IT system, or new service line that didn’t work out. The decision-making problem doesn’t lie in the initial risk that was taken, it’s that business leaders often decide to keep investing in the same failed project. They “escalate their course of action” and double down rather than walking away. Why? Because it is so hard to accept when something doesn’t work out, making it an expensive trap in which many businesses get caught.
  2. Confirmation Bias - People often look to data not to find new information but to confirm what they already believe. To highlight this point, Roberto pointed out the reasons why people choose to watch Fox News or read the New York Times. They want to see their views confirmed. In making business decisions, confirmation bias can keep an organization from seeing new perspectives, opportunities, and challenges. The question to ask is this: Are you looking to get true information or input, or are you just asking to hear what you want to hear? As Roberto pointed out, “Executives don’t hire yes-men and yes-women, they create them through the climate and culture.”
  3. Groupthink - Offering a fascinating video examination of the groupthink phenomenon, Robert shared this Candid Camera clip on how people can squash their own reason and logic in favor of the group. When groupthink occurs in a business, employees choose coherence and unity over analysis and critical thinking. People choose not to speak up and share diverse perspectives in order to please the group, which means original ideas and strategy are censored by the power of the group.
  4. Downplaying Ambiguous Risk - In many businesses bad news doesn’t rise to the top. Layers of bureaucracy keep senior leaders from hearing the bad news, or the culture supports the downplaying of risk. It’s a dangerous state of affairs when employees are discouraged from pointing out risks or problems, as businesses like GM, Volkswagen, and Wells Fargo can attest.
  5. Failure to Share Information - Citing the government’s failure to share key information ahead of 9/11, Roberto challenged the audience to “forget your open door policies.” Instead of waiting on people to knock on your door with issues, problems, and challenges, he encourages managers and leaders go out there and get them. “Be problem finders,” said Roberto. “Don’t wait for them to come to you,” as people will not always be great at bringing information to your attention.

The Path to Better Decisions

While awareness of those five traps is an important way to improve decision making, Roberto had specific tips on how to avoid them and how to capture “wisdom of the crowd” within your business.

  • Build a Climate of Candor - An important way to tap into the wisdom of the crowd is by encouraging employees to contribute without consequence. Roberto told the audience it’s important to make your organization a place where it is “safe to share” and where employees are encouraged to be frank.
  • Decide How to Decide - There are many techniques organizations can employ in their decision making (get the senior leaders out of the room to generate more ideas in early phases, suspend rules of protocol, split into subgroups, use devil’s advocates, etc.) but a business does need to decide how they are going to proceed. Not every approach will work for every business culture, so find out what will work and take action.
  • Manage Conflict Constructively - Conflict is not a bad thing. In fact, embracing divergent ideas early on is important. However, Roberto pointed out that you can use alternative perspectives in positive ways that keep teams working together and sharing ideas. One example was to ensure that devil’s advocates are employed to ask questions rather than to provide critiques. If businesses can keep both civility and candor, points of conflict can be opportunities to strengthen rather than weaken the business.
  • While just an hour, this keynote was a true master class in the rights and wrongs of decision making. TechServe Alliance is grateful to Professor Roberto for his time, his enthusiasm, his knowledge, and his lessons, and we encourage members to share how and where his insights impact your business in the year ahead.