When the yellow-sky edges of storm Ophelia hit, BBC Radio resurrected Michael Fish to rake over his pronouncements about the Great Storm of 1987 (again). You’ll remember from the repeats, even if you weren’t around at the time: “Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way…’ he said. ‘Well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t!” The storm went on to be the worst in three centuries, causing record damage and killing 19 people.
In this recent radio interview, Michael Fish excused the error by describing himself as a mouthpiece of the computer. It was impossible for a single person to interpret the huge complexity of global weather systems and the impact they might have on a tiny island on the edge of the Atlantic. He talked as if there was no decision to make about what advice to give. As if the evidence was the decision.
Michael Fish is wrong.
Wherever evidence may be directing you, a decision is what stands between you and the actions you’ll take. And in an age where it’s never been easier to access the evidence, it’s the quality of the decision, the process of making it, which is now the essential component of success.
In in-depth conversations with more than thirty multi-national businesses – as part of some broader research we’re doing – we were surprised to see how little focus there was on decision-making quality. This, at the same time as there being significant complaint about poor quality decisions:
- Lack of transparency and perceived fairness in decisions
- Decisions based on network influence or authority rather than knowledge or expertise
- Influence of decision-making biases, emotion and personal & team agendas
- Loss of control over decision-making
- Lack of balance between short, medium and long term aims
- Evidence used to shore up decisions already made
- A lack of creative thinking about what all of the options could be
- Lack of conviction and follow-through, nothing really happens
- The list goes on.
Disruption and change are the norm, which makes good decisions even more important. The availability of more evidence has made decision-making harder not easier. Many organisations are also working towards less rigid, more open, agile and adaptive business models which means that different types of decisions are being made by different types of people. Decision-making is more and more distributed.
Despite this, the majority of organisations had provided no training on decision-making. The individuals we interviewed – senior people – had often received no training themselves. Ever. Whilst they worked in a structured way to develop strategies, the way in which they made decisions was inconsistent and informal. They worked to accommodate the ways in which their seniors and peers made decisions: flexing around emotions and hidden agendas, seeking to create influence and win support outside of meetings, ‘talking’ their way into group decisions. Often evidence was used as a proxy for decisions. Like Michael Fish, it was the evidence that did it, not the people.
But evidence isn’t accountable, people are.
All this fuzzy decision-making has clear links to inefficiency, loss of productivity, wasted time, loss of opportunity, lack of innovation. Fuzzy decision-making costs money and exposes the organisation to risk. And, perhaps worst of all, it tries to make evidence accountable rather than the people who should be making the decision.
Clearly this needs to change.
Twenty odd years ago when I started out in the insight world, the major challenge was getting to the insight itself. Organisations were relatively remote from their customers. Pre-digital and Internet, useful data was expensive and hard to come by. Today distilling information to find the right insights is hard work. But the greatest challenge of all is using insight to make good decisions.
In too many organisations there is an assumption that decisions ‘happen’. That the evidence points you in the right direction. But this isn’t true.
Good decision-making follows a process. Processes have structure, components, steps that you have to walk through, as an individual and as part of a team. Evidence has a place in this structure but cannot replace it. Now you’ve got the evidence, it’s time to focus on creating the structure, so that your organisation uses evidence effectively to make decisions which deliver consistently better outcomes.