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By Steve Kelman

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Why are hard decisions hard? Complexity vs. courage.

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At the Brookings Institution last week, Ron Sanders – the longtime senior federal career manager now at Booz Allen – joined me in presenting results of research that I had conducted with his firm's support.

The research involved 20 subcabinet agency heads serving in the Obama administration, 10 selected by good-government experts as ones who had done an outstanding job improving their agency's performance, another 10 chosen at random. I interviewed each, using the same set of questions, for several hours.

One group of questions concerned decision-making style. In formulating our questions, we were guided by the large body of academic literature on where decisions by government leaders can go wrong. Difficult decisions, the literature suggests, are typically very complex, with many facts and values at stake. Decision-making groups can, in theory, improve on individual decision-making by bringing forth a wider variety of knowledge and of points of view. However, decision-making groups are often prone to "groupthink" – situations where the group leader in effect stifles dissent, disregards the breadth of information and range of values, and the group reaches a decision too quickly, without considering alternatives and problems with the chosen course.

The remedy for groupthink is to encourage dissent, debate and sharing of new information and viewpoints. We wanted to see to what extent these agency leaders had wide-ranging sources of advice and information. We did this through a series of questions, avoiding obvious formulas such as "do you have a wide source of information?" or "do you encourage dissent?" Instead, we asked for facts and examples, such as what kinds of people they typically consulted for important decisions or to cite specific examples of situations where they had changed their minds about what to do in the course of making a decision or executing it.

On this dimension, our results were fairly encouraging. Though there were some differences between our two groups of executives, most in both groups had wide sources of information. One noteworthy finding was that a majority of these executives' personal staff and direct reports were career civil servants, something that provides a source of diversity because of the different perspectives career people bring to the decision-making of political appointees.

But our most surprising finding was along a different dimension. We asked each respondent to name their single most difficult decision and to discuss how they made it. We asked this question to find out more about how these executives thought through complex problems. However, it turned out that all 10 of the most difficult decisions cited by the outstanding executives, and six of 10 of the control group's, were difficult not because they were technically complex, but because doing what the executive perceived as the right thing required courage; the decision was politically unpopular or personally wrenching.

We are fascinated by this finding, not the least because it suggests a limitation to the conventional wisdom in the literature about a good decision-making process encouraging dissent and questioning. What these leaders needed from their decision-making group was not so much more information or points of view as moral support and backup to help them make a painful but correct choice. Thus, good decision processes for technically complex decisions and those requiring character and courage may, we think, be different.

In my next post I will discuss the other series of questions we asked, and what we found.

Posted on Oct 03, 2013 at 11:40 AM


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Reader comments

Mon, Nov 18, 2013 Nancy

Complex decisions often involve more that just processes or systems, they impact people. And, as human beings we have a lot of complex emotions that factor into whatever changes come from the decision. Some people may have to change their behaviors or work with new teams or may lose their jobs altogether. The people piece can make courageous decisions feel even more risky if you don't have support.

Tue, Oct 8, 2013 Al

" . . . what the executive perceived as . . ." are the most important words in this blog post. The real trick is to make the executive's perception more accurately reflect reality.

Mon, Oct 7, 2013

Moral decisions are usually most dificult when your conscience says one thing and what's popular, what's expected or what you think the boss wants lead to another outcome. It takes courage to do what is right, not what is politically correct. I would like to see more government, political and military leaders do what's right.

Fri, Oct 4, 2013 Joe Dance SC

Kelman observes that the decision maker feels alone and isolated, that he needs the moral support of the staff and other leaders. The decision maker is alone - that comes with being a decision maker. Important decisions are supposed to be difficult. If he had the moral support of the group, then they would be back to groupthink.

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