Dave Pollard on the 2 optimal modes of decision-making

Dave Pollard has another one of his classic life-changing blog entries, which is really worth reading and pondering on.

The article starts with an amazing graph analyzing optimal decision-making processes and with a discussion of the Wisdom of Crowds model by James Surowiecky.

I’m only reproducting the conclusion, which differentiates between complicated and complex problems, which are best tackled through 2 different methodologies:

1. Tackling Complicated Problems with the learn-analyze-imagine-assess-decide-on-action process

Here by contrast is the optimal process, for complicated (not complex) problems:

The executives identify and qualify a crowd of co-workers, customers (including prospective customers) and informed members of the public, and interview them, in interactive sessions witnessed by the organization’s creative people, to augment their (the executives’ and the crowd’s) collective knowledge of the problem, knowledge of solutions that have worked in the past in similar situations, experience solving similar problems, knowledge of people who can help solve the problem, and knowledge of relevant tools, models and methods that can help.

The executives then charge the creative people (who by virtue of their involvement in step 1 now have a deep contextual understanding of the problem and how to approach it) with imagining new solutions that might work to solve the problem, working both individually and as a team. These creative people do not assess or rank these potential solutions — their job is simply to identify alternatives.

The executives then canvass the crowd from step 1, presenting them with the solutions that have worked in past, those which the executives based on their experience think have potential, plus the alternatives that were surfaced in step 2. The crowd makes the final decision.

This learn-analyze-imagine-assess-decide-on-action process involves each group of stakeholders doing what they do best. If there are appropriate incentives for the crowd (and sometimes that’s as simple as recognition and thanks), this process need not be cumbersome, and to some extent it can be automated (members of the ‘crowd’ can to some extent self-qualify by going through an online qualification survey, and step 3 can also be done entirely online). It is course frightening to executives, because it reveals their true, limited value in the decision-making process. In fact just about anyone can perform the three steps above (they are mostly administrative and facilitative), bringing into question the need for highly-paid executives, and a hierarchical decision-making organizational structure, at all. So this approach is clearly more amenable to egalitarian, non-hierarchical organizations. It’s also bad news for the consultants and outside experts — they aren’t needed in the process at all.”

2. Tackling Complex Problems with the learn-explore-imagine-converse-emerge-let-self-decide-on-action process
The process for such problems must of necessity be emergent, rather than prescriptive as for merely complicated problems. Such problems do not lend themselves to (anywhere near) ‘complete’ knowledge, rigorous analysis, determination of clear causality, or predictability. In fact, such problems don’t have ‘solutions’ per se at all. What can emerge is a collective understanding sufficient to allow all of the participants in the process to contribute knowledgeably, positively and responsibly to addressing the problem in self-organized adaptive ways, individually and collectively, in the context of their own lives and work. This process is essentially the same process that indigenous cultures have used for millennia to address such problems, and the same process used by ‘complex system’ methodologies like Open Space:

The project champions constitute themselves and selected researchers (perhaps including a qualified or self-qualified crowd) to collect, organize and share as much relevant information as possible about the problem/issue.

The project champions then invite anyone with sufficient passion around the issue to commit appropriate time and energy to the project, to study the information collected in step 1 and attend one or more facilitated, self-managed sessions to explore and discuss the problem/issue. Those who accept the invitation become in effect a second self-qualified crowd.

The project champions document the proceedings of these sessions and facilitate the organization of groups to pursue collective actions emerging from them, involving attendees and others as appropriate. But, most importantly, each attendee is charged with the responsibility to pursue individual actions and to individually initiate other collective actions involving non-attendees, that they think make sense in the context of their own life and work as a result of the understanding they have acquired from the sessions.

This learn-explore-imagine-converse-emerge-let-self-decide-on-action process is structurally similar but significantly different in methodology and responsibility than that outlined above for complicated problems. Each process respects the different characteristics of the problem/issue and appreciates the need for a different approach to it.”

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