The January issue of the Harvard Business Review is on decision making, and they cover an array of issues on this topic. One aspect that got me thinking was the area of group decision making. They point out the dangers of decisions by consensus where decisions are easily made without conflict or debate. HBR points out the relevancy of "groupthink," a term coined by a psychologist in 1972 and which Wikipedia describes as follows:
In a groupthink situation, each member of the group attempts to conform his or her opinions to what they believe to be the consensus of the group. In a general sense this seems to be a very rational way to approach the situation. However this results in a situation in which the group ultimately agrees upon an action which each member might individually consider to be unwise.
When I think back on strategic decision-making meetings that I've been involved in, the least satisfying ones were those where no competing concepts were debated or given serious discussion. By "debated" I am not referring to a simple identification of alternatives followed by agreement (or silence) by everyone that the alternatives should be dismissed ("Okay, Plan A is consistent with our corporate approach. Well, let's consider Plan B--no one likes that one, do they?" <play cricket_sounds.wav>). The legal system is (simplistically speaking) designed to place opposing viewpoints against each other and let the best one win--respect for this conflict-resolution approach in business could benefit corporate decision making processes. Unfortunately, concepts and viewpoints that conflict with a company's norm are often immediately shot down as absurd or obviously not worth consideration (see my post on the No Instinct and Bill Kinnon's on the Idea-Killing Manager).
When I consider healthy discussions that take place in the scientific world, vigorous debate (or at least consideration) of opposing alternatives is critical for the successful development of ideas and identification of promising new areas of research. The ideas that withstand critical challenges from colleagues end up being the most robust and strongest theories. The best scientific labs that I've experienced have regular meetings where no assumptions go unchallenged, and alternatives to the consensus thinking are given serious consideration, with everyone in the lab actively participating in this process. If there is a debate over a point or competing hypotheses are uncovered in the lab meeting, people follow up with research/analysis that allows the different hypotheses to be proved or disproved--or at least enough evidence is gathered to indicate clear support of one hypothesis over the others. This approach often leads to whole new lines of funded research, the equivalent of creating a new product line or market.
Now, think about decision-making business meetings in which you have attended. First, how many of them consisted of a couple people doing all of the talking, with the other people contributing nothing to the discussion--their silence an implicit agreement with whatever the primary speaker concludes? Ever wonder why those silent people were in the meeting in the first place? Some may be there as legitimate observers, simply absorbing information to relay to their group or to incorporate into their own group's process. Most of the silent ones, however, probably have something to say but learned a long time ago that comments contrary to the company's normal viewpoint are quickly dismissed or given lipservice. Those people who sit silently keeping their ideas to themselves have become "obsolete".
Second, when was the last time that someone followed up on a competing idea by analyzing it and reporting their results back to those who were in the meeting? Rather than summary dismissals meted out to novel concepts or challenges to status quo thinking, one or more people should be tasked to develop the idea further until the evidence supports or disproves the value of the novelty. Spend a little time and ignore the No Instinct. I'm going to guess that people might complain that this requires time and resources that people don't have, but that excuse has become a routine defense for all inaction these days. Doing the extra work necessary to come to conclusions is what put IDEO on the map. They don't make critical design decisions by spending 30 minutes sitting around a conference table looking at options on PowerPoint slides (remember the last time that you sat in a meeting where everyone looked at 5 different designs on a projector or hand out, then everyone agreed on the preferred design--the final decision based on a single inactive graphical representation), IDEO creates several different prototypes and spends time observing and documenting user interactions. A process that requires time and resources, but allows IDEO to optimize their design-decision process.