I am reading “Straight Choices: The Psychology of Decision Making” by Benjamin Newell, David Lagnado and David Shanks (Psychology Press 2006). It is a very good summary of decision making from the viewpoint of cognitive psychology. It makes some muddy topics very clear. However, it totally fails in Chapter 14, Group Decision Making. This isn’t the authors’ fault – all work on team or group decision-making misses the main points. I will get to these in a moment.
First, some background. I attempted to address this topic in Chapter 5 of “Making Robust Decisions”, cleverly titled “Teams Don’t Make Decisions, But…” The title reflects the problem with the topic. In business and technology there is always one person who signs off on a project to move it forward. This manager is the ultimate “decision maker”. But, if this person is good at what they do, for complex problems they have a team that is studying the problem and advising them about what choice to make. On this team, some of the people know about some of the information, they all have different fields of expertise and knowledge. For complex problems, no one person can know all about all of the important features of all the alternatives. Further, they bring a range of viewpoints about what is important.
So, is the manager the decision maker or the team? Depends how you draw the line around the term “decision”. If it is an event, then the manager is the decision maker. If decision-making is a process, then it is the team. I see decision-making as a process. The cognitive psychologists seem to see a decision as the event.
In “Straight Choices”, the authors summarize research on group decision making. All of the studies they sight are for very simple problems, not for problems with distributed knowledge. In other words, the toy problems the psychologists have used to study teams do not reflect what happens in business and technology. They tend to focus on the "right" answer to simple problems with a known solution. This why Chapter 14 was such a let down.
From my reading, the two main reasons to use a team are:
- Obtain the best information when no one person can know all that is needed to be known
- Build stakeholder buy-in and accountability
These goals mean that you need to:
- Build an environment and a team strategy that fosters communication of the right information and buy-in
- Suppress the effect of differences in cognitive styles (“suppress” is not the right word, but you want to level the playing field so the alphas don’t dominate, the closers don’t stop things too soon, the wafflers don’t lead to team paralysis and so forth.)
- Guard against group think
- Help build a shared understanding
Of the six topics itemized above, Chapter 14 only addresses Group Think. It comes close to talking about a shared understanding when it discusses consensus, but consensus is not important for a decision buy-in. (Quoting Margaret Thatcher, "To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects."). The two main goals are never discussed. It seems the cognitive research has focused on getting the “right” answers to toy problems. Most real decisions have no right answer, so the psychologists are asking the wrong questions.
In the authors’ defense, they end the chapter with “Research on group decision making is both appealing and frustrating”. In spite of this frustration, decisions are made by teams every day and I believe the key to robust team decisions is in the six items listed above. These are discussed at length in Making Robust Decisions. I just wish there was more good research on each of them so you don’t have to take my word for it.