Social Context of Decisions

I have been able to finish Irving Janis’s Groupthink – the classic study of poor decision-making as evidenced in the foreign policy catastrophes.

Any major decision is made in a small-group context, where senior people from varying backgrounds come together to contribute their perspectives with the aim of ultimately making an informed decision about a particular issue. However, the process described above is more of an ideal than an objective routinely achieved in reality. In the boardrooms across the world, decisions might be made in circumstances far less ideal.

The value of Groupthink lies in informing how poor and good decisions have been made in the US related to foreign policy. Janis includes the Pearl Habour attack, the Bay of Pigs, the decision to unify Korea during the Korean War, and the escalation of the Vietnam War as the starting points. Counter-examples, demonstrating sound decision-making process included the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe following the Second World War.

Janis describes how the team dynamics in the decision-making teams encouraged consensus-creation, and the active discouragement of dissenting views by ‘mind-guards’ – people who were close to the leader, and who were trusted. Having a sense of invulnerability greatly contributed to poor decision-making as well. Leadership matters, as when the leader already has an established view on things, and expects that the recommendation be inclined towards that view.

This is not to say that the people involved in fiascoes are always incompetent. If there is another finding from Janis, it would be that brilliant people caught in the wrong social/group-context can make catastrophic mistakes. In other words, few groups would be truly immune from the effects of groupthink symptoms. The counterpoints in the Marshall Plan and the Cuban Missile Crisis also illustrates how a similar group of people involved in fiascoes can also be wisely informed in a different context to make robust decisions.

The scary thing for anyone concerned about the phenomena of groupthink is that no institutional measure can truly curtail it when it happens. The closeted nature of these decision-making groups is one reason for it – these are typically decisions done in contexts that are shielded from public scrutiny, and even scrutiny from other quarters. After all, how could anyone interrupt the proceedings of leading to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, or tell MacArthur about the consequences of forcibly unifying Korea? Social dynamics can overpower rational objections to ill-conceived plans.

The case of the Cuban Missile Crisis was where Janis presented how the lessons from the Bay of Pigs fiasco was applied. The participants in the Cuban Missile Crisis were asked to be critical thinkers and not only representing their respective agencies; to have leaderless sessions to provide a more permissive environment. During the proceedings, participants experienced discomfort as they switched positions before coming round to a consensus view. Vigilant appraisal marked the attitude of the discussions.

At this point, there are ways of organizing decision-making processes that avoid the pitfalls of groupthink. The scenario-process can be thought of as a way of organising information in a way that deliberately prevents premature closing off of options. There are drawbacks, for sure. Scenario-processes are often protracted, and can take up large portions of personnels’ time. As with groupthink, there have been clear examples of past successes – Shell was able to rehearse a possible collapse of the Soviet Union to take advantage of the opportunities then; South Africa political, social and economic elite used the scenario process to create a shared language to navigate the transition post-apartheid.

Obviously there have been shortcomings in the scenario process, in ways that mirror the characteristics of poor decision making. Peter Schwartz wrote about the instances where scenarios were not as effective as they could be, such as having the wrong clients, underestimating the effects of the global downturn, and not hearing from sufficiently-diverse viewpoints.

With this short exploration we can think about the hallmarks of a good decision, and what makes a good process. A good decision process is the result of having a diversity of relevant views, one that lays out in detail the implications of contingencies and consequences of the decisions. A good decision process should then be designed for diversity, open airing of dissenting views, where the leader should not dictate policy preferences early on in the process.

The decisions that Irving Janis studied took place largely in a limited group. What about decision-making in large bureaucratic organisations, with many hierarchies of command?

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