Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


The Art of Critical Decision MakingThe Art of Critical Decision Making

Written by: Michael A. Roberto 

Lecture by: Michael A. Roberto


In the Great Courses’ lecture series, Dr. Michael Roberto, characterizes leadership in “The Art of Critical Decision Making”.  Roberto’s primary methodology is examination of case studies that range from the Cuban missile crises, to the Daimler/Chrysler merger, to the 9/11/01 Trade Center bombing.  He offers perspective on how good decisions can be made when complexity exceeds average to superior individual human capability.

Roberto’s argument is that a structured participatory process is the most consistently productive form of critical decision-making.  Roberto infers, as the world becomes more complex, individual comprehension and patterning of facts becomes less reliable as a form of critical decision-making.  His argument relies on leadership structure that insists on communication transparency and qualified freedom.  Roberto suggests leaders elicit ideas from engaged people, rather than only experts, in making critical decisions meant to identify problems, proffer solutions, and accomplish goals.

Though questioning individual critical human decision-making, Roberto notes that individual intuition sometimes exceeds the positive performance of any other form of critical decision-making.  Roberto tells the story (revealed by Kahneman’s and Tversky’s  “Thinking Fast and Slow”) of a fireman that intuitively feels his fire crew should evacuate a burning building because something did not seem right.  At the time of the fireman’s decision, he could not explain why but he saved the crew’s lives because the floor gave way immediately after evacuation.  The crew trusted their leader’s experience when he ordered them out of the building.

However, Roberto notes that individual leader’ intuition is not enough for making critical decisions.  Roberto gives the example of a field fire crew chief who intuits that burning flammable grassland around his crew’s area would allow a rapidly approaching field fire to jump their position.  However, this crew chief fails to save the fire crew’s lives.  He did not have their confidence; i.e. the crew chief’s inability to explain his intuitive judgment was undermined by their lack of trust in his judgment as an experienced leader.  They felt they had a better chance of surviving by trying to outrun the fire.  Intuitive decisions made by a leader must be accompanied by trust in the leader’s decision making process.  Returning to Roberto’s primary argument, communication transparency elicits participation and understanding of critical decisions.  If the fire crew chief had been a better communicator before the fire, he may have gained the trust of his colleagues and saved their lives.

However, Roberto notes that transparency is only a part of the process.  It is important for leaders to structure decision-making so that all participants feel un-threatened by reprisal, or ridicule, and are appreciated as engaged participants in the process.  Appreciation is demonstrated by a leader who listens and feeds back the thoughts of participants to ensure communication understanding and clarity.  Another suggested rule is that when the final decision is made in a participatory process, there are to be no further modifications until the decision is found to be inadequate to the task.  Decisions will not always be correct but there is an equal appreciation of mistakes and a process in place to revise the decision.  The critical decision-making process is re-started with the same level of trust and transparency.

Roberto outlines some of the errors that are made by leaders using the participatory decision-making process.  Group think is a risk.

When participants are intimidated by colleagues and fail to participate, they are often saying no by being silent.  With silence, there is no constructive participation in the decision-making process.  Leaders must draw all relevant participants into the conversation.  Leaders must withdraw from some meetings to be sure there is a free flow of information and recommendation.  Further, Roberto suggests leaders must not keep pertinent information from participants to steer decisions to pre-conceived conclusions.  A leader’s steered information undermines intent of the critical decision making process because it either distorts or hides known facts.  The case studies that Roberto uses to prove his points are the Cuban Missile Crises, the Daimler/Chrysler merger, and three space shuttle disasters.

Roberto offers a fundamental insight to modern decision-making.  This is the age of consensus because of ubiquitous availability of big data.

As never before, the potential for accumulation of pertinent information and dissemination of human cognition makes consensus a highly desirable component in “The Art of Critical Decision Making”.  The final case study that infers some credibility to Roberto’s argument is the 9/11 disaster.  The American Intelligence community had good information on the possibility of suicide airplane pilots being used to attack America.  However, a flaw in that revelation is that there was not enough transparency in the Intelligence community before the attack.  The FBI did not effectively communicate with the CIA and vice versa.

Though Roberto acknowledges there is a good deal of “Monday morning quarterbacking” when using case studies, his fundamental point seems correct.  Today’s leaders need to structure their organizations to find problems and create solutions through consensus building.

Leaders need to engage employees whose ideas will be listened to, used, and appreciated rather than abjectly dismissed.  Executives, who are more concerned about position than organizational effectiveness, are not leaders.  They are cowards.

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