Bad decisions happen. Resources are invested in new products that flop. Wrong people—underperformers—get hired and promoted. Mergers end up diluting instead of creating value. Surveys show managers agreeing that the majority of important decisions are of poor quality. The apologists for poor management decisions would suggest that engineering decisions are easy by comparison: engineers just look at the facts and decide accordingly. To get to the root of the question, let’s first ask what high quality decisions are and what they are based on.

We make decisions—choices between alternative actions—to achieve values: new, profitable products to sell; productive employees; mergers to increase market share and cost efficiency. A quality decision is one that leads to achievement of values. Arguably, decisions such as those above are complex and can be difficult to make, but we can significantly improve their quality by applying three basic, but often neglected, principles:

1) Adhere to facts. This is the most fundamental principle for making quality decisions, in business or in any other field. This is the engineering approach. To build a sound structure, say, or to drill a productive oil well, engineers must observe facts, and then act accordingly. What is the purpose of the structure to be built? What requirement do the terrain and the location pose? What resources and materials are needed and available? Or, where is the oil reservoir and what are its qualities? Given that, what kind of well design is required?

The same principle and approach apply when making business decisions. The problem tends not to be the gathering and analysis of facts, but the adherence to them. Evading facts that are unpleasant (a competitor’s product is better designed and lower-priced than what we are developing) or that contradict our wishes (the demand for our new product is not as strong as hoped for) is tempting. However, evading facts does not change them, and only by adhering to them can we achieve values, such as profitable products.

Adhering to facts means asking and answering questions, and acting according to the answers. For example, how can the product design be improved? What actions does that require? Or, how to increase demand for the product and through which specific actions?

The two other principles are derived from this first, fundamental one.

2) Think independently. In other words: don’t follow others blindly. This, of course, is a derivative of adhering to facts, with an emphasis on having a primary focus on facts as opposed to other people. If a company’s product is not competitive, it is necessary to identify the root cause (such as poor design or too high of a price), and then to take action to address it—as opposed to just blindly imitating competitors.

Studies have shown that business decision makers violate this principle not only by imitating competitors but by succumbing to groupthink inside the organization: going unthinkingly along with the leader’s decision or with the group consensus. Well-established management teams whose members think alike are particularly prone to groupthink. A formal devil’s advocate role might help—but would not be necessary if all team members followed the principles of adhering to facts and independent thinking.

3) Assess others objectively and grant them what they deserve. This is the principle of justice: adhering to facts when assessing and dealing with people. It is often violated in business decision making. Even engineers who carefully adhere to technical facts are prone to evasion when it comes to people decisions: who to hire or to promote, and when to fire employees. It is easier to hire a friend of a friend than to identify the job requirements, post the job, screen the candidates, interview those shortlisted, and hire the best match with the job’s requirements and the company’s shared values.

The evasive approach is hazardous, because hiring the wrong person is not only expensive (such as training a new employee); he can literally destroy the company. For example, a dishonest employee can defraud the company and bring it to financial ruin. An unproductive employee may cause the morale among others to fall. Therefore, it is crucially important to assess others (employees, but also suppliers and customers) objectively, and to grant them what they deserve: a job, a promotion, recognition, responsibility, firing, demotion, etc.)

These principles—rationality, independence, and justice—clearly apply to business. If consistently followed, they would tremendously improve the quality of business decisions and the profitability of companies. To learn more about these and other principles long-term profitability requires, read my book.

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada. Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great article.

    I’m chuckling at the notion of appointing someone as a devil’s advocate. Honeywell’s TQM process had several positions in a meeting, including “process observer” to ensure everyone was heard from. I thought that was the chairperson’s job. Bureaucracies do tend to overdo instead of teaching basics.)

    Devil’s advocates can be viewed as annoying, like “10% Bob”, as I referred to the lead of maintenance planning at PW. Most of the time his objections were not sustainable in the full picture, but at least once in ten we were very glad he’d pointed something out to us. So I coached my staff not to get much annoyed with him. (Of course he was the person who had to lay out details and track progress, so he was accustomed to checking for gaps and risks.)

    There are many specific aids to decision making, including checklists – an “are we being conned?” one could be made from Rob Flitton’s excellent book “Negotiation for Life and Business”, which gives many examples from his experience.

    • Thanks, Keith, for your comment! If everybody thought independently, no appointed devil’s advocates would be necessary … Checklists don’t always work, when people don’t take them seriously, e.g., when doing safety inspections. First-handed adherence to facts is needed.

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