Strategy processes and decision making

16 04 2008

A repeated theme from my business school strategy courses has been to ask the right questions. The seeds of this learning were planted by Clayton Christenson and Michael Raynor who taught me:

  • To decipher contingent circumstances of a theory, ask “When doesn’t this work?”
  • To unmask a correlation impersonating a causal theory, ask “What is the causal mechanism?”

Ask the right questions

Some recent readings expanded my field of application to broader management and strategy development. Bazerman and Chugh’s notion of a devil’s inquisitor”[1] seems like an immensely practical and powerful practice for managers and strategy consultants (whose ranks I will join shortly). A devil’s inquisitor could ask “When doesn’t this work?” to objects far more diverse than a management theory; the inquisitor could challenge hidden assumptions embedded in sales presentations, marketing plans, hiring decisions, and financial forecasts.

The devil’s inquisitor notion meets well with Garvin’s review of behavioral processes. When group members seek to preserve unanimity and cohesion (which happens frequently), they risk adopting unchallenged perspectives on the strength of consensus rather than robust analysis. As Garvin points out, “certain techniques that introduce conflict, such as devil’s advocacy or dialectical inquiry, have been found to overcome these problems in both controlled experiments and real-world situations.”[2] While I would hesitate to introduce the phrase “dialectical inquiry” at a business meeting, I do note that Garvin’s concept of healthy conflict and competing perspectives is positively correlated with more effective and timely decision making. As I understand it, what might seem like an introduction of inefficiency by sponsoring conflict may actually result in more effective executive decisions by eliminating deceptive alternatives with simple probing.

As a clear example of implementing this manner of devil’s inquisition, Hillcrest Laboratories is a small technology company based in Rockville, Md., that has effectively adopted a devil’s inquisitor attitude in its hiring process. Every candidate is assumed to be incapable of meeting the company’s performance and personality standards. Questions are then purposefully designed to find disconfirming evidence that would indicate a candidate in fact is a star performer and worth hiring. This puts the impetus on the hiring manager – indeed, the entire hiring team – to prudently justify offers to candidates, resulting in the hiring of only the very best employees and, ultimately, higher productivity among those hired.

Buchanan and O’Connell added distinct clarity to this need for healthy conflict and devil’s inquisition. “Consensus is good,” they wrote, “unless it is achieved too easily, in which case it becomes suspect.”[3] Cheap consensus may be the harbinger of failure to decisions made without adequately challenging assumptions. Particularly if “decision implies the end of deliberation and the beginning of action,” strategic decision makers of a firm (or a government, as many authors pointed out) must give adequate attention to the deliberation preceding the decision for action. Healthy habits of challenging recommendations (“When wouldn’t this work?” “How could this fail?” “How could you prove this is wrong?”) can be a simple but powerful tool for executives to employ when making critical decisions.

James March provides perhaps the healthiest non-combative semantics to describe his notion of “foolishness” and play at work. I liken it to writer Polly Navarre’s (Mavericks at Work) recommendation to “Be stupid” when trying to solve a complex problem, deliver recommendations in an ambiguous situation, or make a critical decision. I’ve seen design firms effectively “play” to rethink everything from the Zyliss kitchen whisk (made with symmetric wire loops that double back on themselves without crossing, rather than traditional designs that simply overlap wires of differing lengths – saving on manufacturing costs and cleaning) to airplane interiors. Foolishness is for the design firms a method to question prevailing notions and effectively re-imagine the way the world (or just a kitchen whisk) could be.

Zyliss Sauce whisk

I imagine some level of social bonding and group coherence is required among decision making teams that must employ devil’s inquisition so as to avoid pretense of competition or tribalism among alternative viewpoints. This seems to suggest an alignment – whether overt or implicit – toward a common goal or purpose. In a business setting, mutual interest in the success of the firm or a project may provide the substance of group coherence (although personal career interests may introduce competitive behavior). But, as March points out, we rarely give attention to naming our pre-existing purposes nor do we adequately allow the outcomes of foolishness to weigh against and reshape our purposes. That, however, is a more existential problem than I care to deal with in a two-page paper. This does emphasize Peter Drucker’s suggestion that “the most important decision may not be made by the team itself but by management about what team to use” (Buchanan and O’Connell).


[1] Bazerman, Max and Dolly Chugh. “Decisions Without Blinders.” Harvard Business Review, January 2006.

[2] Garvin, David. “The Process of Organization and Management.” Sloan Management Review, Summer 1998.

[3] Buchanan, Leigh and Andrew O’Connell. “A Brief History of Decision Making.” Harvard Business Review, January 2006.

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