Catching up to the future: An introduction to decision-making transformation

Not too long ago, conversations about the “future of work” used to focus on the macro trends that could eventually impact us in five or ten years. Today however, the “future of work” more often focuses on how we will adapt to – and capitalize on – the tremendous changes that have already taken place. 

One such topic is how to optimize business decisions now that none of the key subject matter experts or stakeholders are in the same place at the same time. In theory, the mass adoption of collaboration tools  such as Microsoft Teams and Slack should have been the answer. Yet for all their benefits, we are still facing significant challenges solving complex problems, determining strategies, and setting objectives and priorities.

Before COVID, the McKinsey Global Decision Making Survey reported 80 percent of managers say their organizations don’t excel at decision making. A majority (61%) say much of the time they devote to decision making is used ineffectively. Today, these numbers are surely higher.

What are we missing?

But why isn’t “collaboration” helping more? To better understand this, we first need to review the critical ingredients of complex decision making. 

People. The new winners will effectively broaden input from more stakeholders to develop innovative solutions with better alignment and lower risk. For all the worry that AI would replace humans, the rise in sophistication of analytics has actually created the need for more human brain power and perspectives to make sense of it all, develop creative solutions and identify hidden risks. Gone are the days of a couple smart guys simply handing down strategies to the rest of the organization. 

Process. When chasing the best results from complex problems, a lack of defined, analytical process significantly reduces the chances of optimized results. No matter how experienced, decision makers must be armed with more than an organic, “make it up as we go” approach. In many ways, having the right process is even more important than having the best data. So much so that McKinsey estimates the quality of decision-making to be 6X more impactful than data analysis on the quality of final outcomes. 

Transparency. We can’t understand, let alone manage and improve, what we can’t see. Any management team looking to ensure that the right data, people and process are leveraged across the organization’s most critical decisions MUST have the ability to audit the “who, how and why” of decision making. Governance, compliance, organizational learning – even issues such as diversity, equity and inclusion – require new standards for transparency in decision making. 

Now let’s come back to the current reality for most of us today – sitting through yet another Zoom call while simultaneously trying to keep up with a near constant flurry of Slack messages across dozens of channels. Are we more engaged with our teams? Probably. But are we making better decisions? Are we gathering enough perspectives, structuring our thinking and creating the kind of transparency needed for others to understand – and even learn from – how we are working? Probably not. 

And there’s a reason for that. Microsoft Teams and Slack were simply not designed to give us those things. Their aim is to keep us connected and responsive. Yet, their conversational format quickly creates piles of messages that effectively limit the number of people who can follow along and contribute to only a few per conversation.  

Furthermore, the free-flowing nature of these tools makes it really hard to maintain structured analysis across all topics. And the sheer number of unorganized posts creates a barrier to anyone outside that small circle to recreate the logic thread that leads to the conclusion… if they can even find the conclusion. 

(If you want to try a frustrating experiment, invite 30 people into a Slack channel to decide… well anything, and see how that turns out.)

A Future Vision

This is where we can begin to envision a new class of enterprise software which would be purpose-designed for modern decision making. This new software category would…

  • Make it easy for ALL available subject matter experts and stakeholders to contribute to the deliberation without their voices getting lost
  • Enable managers to intentionally design and follow analytical decision-making processes
  • Use AI to help logically organize all ideas into an easy-to-digest format
  • Provide in-depth analytics to help managers better understand contributions and make decisions
  • Create a clear audit trail that spans from data to final decision

Of course, this future software would get bonus points if it would also be able to facilitate results tracking and the identification of best practices so we can all progressively get better and better at this whole decision-making thing.

Dr. Mark Klein, Principle Research Scientist at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence has been working on many of these concepts for more than a decade. The software firm he founded, HiveWise, has directly evolved from his research work with US and European governments as well as large organizations such as BP and Intel. According to Dr. Klein, one of the missing ingredients HiveWise brings to the table is a way to organize information in a structure based on argument theory. 

“To really understand the main ideas of any complex deliberation, it’s helpful to arrange the key points into a framework of questions, answers, and pro and con arguments,” explains Dr. Klein. “The hard part is helping scalable groups of people think in such a structured way. You can spend the time trying to train everyone, or you can give them tools that make it easy for them.”

With HiveWise, those tools take the form of an intelligent agent (named “Athena” after the Greek goddess of wisdom and strategy) that facilitates organized contributions from all stakeholders. Athena is designed to engage users either in survey form or simply by chatting with them on Slack or Microsoft Teams. Decision makers can decide which questions to ask in which order, who to involve, and within what timeframe. The result is a clear “map” of the collective deliberation backed by sophisticated reporting and results measurement tools. A platform like HiveWise gives us a glimpse of the future of decision making, one where increased participation, structure and transparency moves from a “cool idea” to the new normal. 

However, as with many important aspects of digital transformation, technology alone isn’t enough. People and processes must adapt as well. This is one of the key reasons why the digital transformation consultancy Talan has created a special set of services focused on enterprise decision making. 

“For a large number of organizations, especially those that are not digital natives, COVID-19 has made them aware of many of the inefficiencies in their business, their structure and the way they relate,” says Alberto Serrano, director of the business transformation line at Talan Spain. “Collaborative tools, cloud computing, business intelligence and organizational agility are important steps to work together better and more effectively. Decision-making transformation brings it all together and takes it to the next level.”

Talan has developed a series of discovery, assessment and planning services aimed at helping organizations identify opportunities for decision-making transformation and create a phased plan of action. These actions often include the identification of best practices, decision workflow design, change management and continuous improvement. 

“People are the key to success, especially managers who must lead by example.” explained Mr. Serrano. “The people who make up an organization, as well as other interested and affected parties in decision-making, are often happy to finally be able to share their ideas and perspectives.” According to Alberto Serrano, it is more often managers who have to adapt to the new environment as, he points out, “Decisions made behind closed doors by small cliques are being replaced by decision-making workflows that are out in the open and cast a wide net for the best ideas. It’s not about giving up “control,” it’s about capitalizing on collective intelligence to drive better results with lower risk.”

It all adds up to a future of work where optimized decision making has become an attainable goal. Whether your team is prepared to move forward now or would benefit from a trusted advisor to support the process, the pieces are in place to make it happen. Are you ready? That far distant “future of work” we often talk about… it’s already here. We just need to catch up.

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