Eight weeks of learning, 30 minutes to tell all (part 4)

On the first evening of class, we dove right into the perilous waters of decision making with the EMOB exercise: “Group Ranking Task: Alaskan Adventure.” With six people in our group, we struggled to get to a consensus on which items would be most valuable to hold on to in a survival situation in the Arctic Circle. It was only at the point where we were running out of time to have our group’s work completed that we pushed through the decision making processes to reach a group position. And ultimately, the group position was not strong in its own right nor in the sense that the group’s results are usually better than those of the individuals in the group. To me, the entire exercise felt like the Road to Abilene and was a wake-up call for what was to come in this course.

We learned first-hand about the disadvantages of group problem solving and decision making, among them the time required to get to a consensus, the diffused sense of ownership and responsibility, some riskier decisions being made than what a prudent individual might have proffered on their own, and premature closure of the debate in a rush to reach the conclusion. We also observed a few of the benefits of group decision making, such as the ability to draw on the diversity and experience of the group’s membership, the ability to gain acceptance through connections that each member could take back to the larger organization, and some level of cohesion among the group members.

We also learned that when a very persuasive person is given the ability to commandeer the discussion they can guide the group into a very poor decision and will often stifle dissent or alternative suggestions from other members. In the EMOB “Roles Nomination Form” discussion, we went through the 19 different roles and isolated those which can put a group’s efficacy at risk. For example, a self-oriented leader puts their own goals and objectives ahead of the group’s and can undermine the group’s ability to perform. A blocker does precisely that, taking the group interaction off track. Avoiders, dominators and recognition seekers also bring their baggage to the group.

Once again drawing on the experience of the in-class EMOB exercise, Upward Communication: Young Manufacturing Company we observed a series of bad decisions that largely stemmed from incompetent management at the top but also from poor judgment and attempts to cover up and conceal mistakes in the procurement process that materially impacted the company’s manufacturing and quality.

In my research paper, Organizational Communication in a Virtual Work Environment, I discovered that group decision making can also be stalled by the dimensions of time and distance, and that where the virtual team was designed to accelerate workflow and keep things moving around the clock, around the world, decision making takes longer due to the lack of proximity and must be considered by management as such teams are chartered, launched and sustained.

Stevenson’s so-called “FUBAR List” (in the Beyond Excellence video) was an interesting and often overlooked resource for helping organizations make better decisions in the future by learning from their bad decisions in the past. Very few organizations preserve their mistakes for posterity, choosing instead to simply forget about them and hope that they do not happen again.

Instead, companies default to a “minimax” or “maximax” approach to evaluating options and managing their exposure to risk. Frequently, the decision is based on gut instinct rather than hard facts, and ultimately falls back to the organization’s tolerance for risk when weighed against possible gains. In the minimax scenario, companies play it safe and make decisions that will minimize their risk and limit their losses. In the maximax scenario, such as with companies like Enron, the goal is to maximize the potential gain and in many cases to sublimate or ignore the inherent risks of the decision.

Such was the case in the EMOB exercise “The Quandry at Puredrug: Group Decision Making and Ethics.” In my role in this exercise, I was a strong proponent of distributing a drug within the Philippines market that was currently banned in the USA. These types of decisions play out every day with global organizations, seeking to maximize their profit opportunity even if there are obvious risks in their strategy. One need not look much further than the near-complete collapse of the US financial system in 2008 to see how these maximax decisions can play out in the worst-case scenario.

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