Why do smart executives make bad decisions?


Why do seemingly intelligent and well-meaning executives make bad business decisions?

As consultants, it’s a question that organizations task us with answering, often through postmortem reviews of failed strategic initiatives. The idea is to develop a better understanding of how and why pivotal (and ultimately poor) choices were made in hopes of not repeating the mistakes.

We look at the analysis undertaken, the managerial deliberation and how the final decisions were made. In each case, we discovered that the root cause of the bad choice(s) was not the decision-makers themselves — i.e. stupidity on the part of management — but rather a dysfunctional process for making decisions.

Optimizing the decision-making process can go a long way to improving the level of analysis, managerial buy-in and the quality of the decision. And — perhaps most importantly — it could spare your organization from being responsible for the next Edsel or New Coke.

Worst practices

Rigid silos
Whether purposefully, a product of geography or a matter of culture, employees in many organizations are “siloed” in discrete units or departments. Rigid silos restrict the flow of ideas, hampering the collaborative process required for developing sound analysis and making informed decisions.

Executives who possess a siloed worldview — i.e. “empire builders” — can be particularly toxic. Unlike lower-level managers, these individuals have the power to inhibit the allocation of necessary resources and the development and implementation of strategy that serves the interests of the larger organization.

Excessive politics
Politicking is inevitable when any group is gathered to make an important decision. The trouble occurs when politicking gets out of control and supersedes sound logic. This sort of dysfunction breeds and emboldens bias and ago, which can hijack the process and lead to lousy decision-making.

Common examples of excessive politicking include: prioritizing departmental or career goals at the expense of corporate ones; keeping key stakeholders in the dark through the widespread use of back-channel communications; and overemphasizing consensus building or “what will fly” over what makes the most sense.

Muddled processes
Most large organizations assert the importance of strategic problem solving and retain scores of managers who possess this skill. However, many of these firms fail to create and follow the right practices for guiding and empowering these individuals to reach their full potential.

The process — if it even exists — often follows inadequate preparatory work and is too brief, under-resourced and devoid of key stakeholders. Worse, the individuals who are in the room often possess a shared analytical framework thus and lack the skills, expertise and vision required for distinguishing between a good idea and a bad one.

Best practices

There is no silver bullet for creating and sustaining an effective decision-making process. Every company and situation is unique. However, getting the organizational fundamentals right can go a long way toward mitigating and eliminating many of the aforementioned issues. Generally speaking, best practices include:

  • Developing and implementing a systematic decision-making methodology and process
  • Encouraging open and frank discussions about all options, assumptions and scenarios
  • Providing access to high-quality and actionable data
  • Using practical and coherent criteria for evaluating decisions
  • Having engaged and impartial leaders overseeing the process

For more information on our services and work please visit Quanta Consulting Inc.  Follow me on Twitter @MitchellOsak or connect through email at mosak@quantaconsulting.com

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