Decision-Proof Your Organization

Decision-Proof Your Organization

By now, most of us know what went wrong with the two tragic Boeing 737 Max crashes. A single sensor malfunction caused software to take control of the planes and push them into a fatal nosedive.

A recent NY Times article tells us the sobering backstory—one that holds a vital reminder for all senior leaders: shared context and psychological safetyare table stakes when making decisions in complex systems.

Shared Context:

In the book Team of Teams, General McChrystal asserts that, “Functioning safely in an interdependent environment requires that every team possess a holistic understanding of the interaction between all the moving parts. Everyone has to see the system in its entirety for the plan to work.”

In the Boeing case, a “handful” of people made the decision to reduce the number of sensors that would trigger the system. In theory, that could be fine. However, the article suggests that diverse perspectives were not taken into consideration and others who were responsible for downstream decisions didn’t know about it. And so, based on “misguided assumptions,” they made fateful decisions in critical areas such as documentation and training. The absence of shared context meant that they missed the opportunity to avoid a bad decision in the first place and were not equipped to mitigate the risks of it after the fact.

When Circuit City went bankrupt in 2008, there were the obvious economic headwinds and many retailers were struggling. However, Best Buy went on to survive and thrive so we know it was not due only to the external environment. It turns out that a root cause of Circuit City’s downfall was a lack of shared context. Their differentiation strategy was to hire specialized (and therefore higher paid) employees to create a unique in-store experience. When the economic downturn hit, Finance eliminated those same employees, based on cost savings. However, those savings came at a steep price. They essentially “cancelled out” the growth strategy and degraded employee morale and customer loyalty. Leading analysts believe that it was this single decision that “destroyed all their customer loyalty among their best customers in one fell swoop,” triggering the downward spiral.

What You Can Do To Decision-Proof Your Organization:

  • Before making a decision get input from a wide range of perspectives, including specialists in related functions. Input is not the same as consensus. You reserve the right to make the call, but leverage the wisdom of the whole system at the outset. Imagine if Boeing had sent an email to all subject matter experts and asked: "Anyone see an issue with reducing the number of sensors used to activate the system?
  • After making a decision, broadcast it to anyone impacted by the change. Include these elements: The problem being solved, alternatives that were considered, decision made, rationale for the choice. Crucially, give people the opportunity to register concerns. We know this sounds counterintuitive—like you’re inviting dissent. But in reality, it’s just one more way of maintaining shared context. If someone has new data or insight relevant to a crucial decision, wouldn’t you want to hear it?

To make fast, sharp, intelligent decisions based on shared context, think of decision-making as an hourglass: broad perspective, narrow decision owners, broad communication. Asynchronous technology, such as Cloverpop, can make it easy to follow this model.

Psychological Safety:

It’s been demonstrated that diverse perspectives brought together through shared context yield a better decision. But it only works if people feel safe to share their perspective and data, even (especially!) when that means opposing the point of view of someone more senior. That’s why the second component, psychological safety, is so important.

Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, who introduced this concept defines it as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

In the Boeing article, people talked about feeling under “a huge amount of pressure” to get to market fast, making it difficult to question a decision, take the time to think through potential scenarios, or suggest additional testing time.

Similarly, analysis of the February 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy puts some of the responsibility at the feet of NASA’s culture. The disaster is due in part to “many missing signals… concerns not voiced, information overlooked”—all byproducts of the absence of psychological safety.

What You Can Do To Decision-Proof Your Organization:

  • Watch this video with your team
  • Then discuss: what could we do to make it safer and easier to express a risky point of view?

Unlike Boeing or NASA, your decisions may not put lives at risk. But most of us are leading interdependent, complex systems and we can make them stronger and more resilient by decision-proofing them through shared context and psychological safety.

Shani Harmon and Renee Cullinan founded Stop Meeting Like This to change the way the world works. Follow them on LinkedIn and Twitter, and subscribe to their quarterly newsletter.