In my critical thinking class, we’ve been using Paul Nutt’s book, Why Decisions Fail. It’s an interesting look at debacles … “botched decision[s] that attract attention and get a public airing.” In the coming weeks, I’ll draw some examples from Nutt’s database of famously bad decisions.
While I like the book in many regards, I think it’s a mistake to study only failures. Hopefully, business is about more than avoiding something negative. It’s also about attaining something positive. So I’ve been looking for a counterpoint — a study of why decisions succeed. I haven’t found a comprehensive study, but I did find an intriguing article from Boston Consulting Group, “Winning Practices of Adaptive Leadership Teams.” The BCG researchers interviewed 93 executives and identified five traits of successful executive teams. Here they are:
One voice — effective leadership teams “take the time to get completely aligned about the organization’s vision, values, and vital priorities, while respecting individual differences of opinion and experience.” While this implies good communication and mutual respect, it also implies that each team member has an enterprise-wide sense of responsibility. As one executive put it, “If my division is successful, but another division is not, I would not regard that as a victory.”
Sense-and-respond capacity — the most effective teams spend a lot of time surveying the environment, identifying trends, and synthesizing information. Among other things, they make heavy investments in information technology and pattern seeking software. The goal is to successfully “… monitor the external forces that drive change in their business environment.”
Information processing — the investment in IT often generates a large volume of data. The adaptive team then has to process it to create useful information. The team needs to share the data effectively and debate it transparently. Several teams developed “…highly disciplined meeting designs and agenda formats to ensure that they routinely exchange key information through a streamlined process that breaks down silos of communication.” Many teams also emphasize “overcommunication”.
Freedom within a framework — several teams spoke of “guardrails”. Within those guardrails, executives have a lot of room to maneuver; they can make their own decisions on how to get things done. As they prove themselves, the team widens the guardrails. Within the guardrails, “…failure [is] seen as a possible and an acceptable outcome. Failure is debilitating only if the lessons learned are not disseminated and applied quickly.”
Boundary fluidity — executives move both horizontally and vertically. There’s a sense that successful executives are “utility players” — any executive could fill in for any other executive if need be. There’s also a sense that silos are self-defeating. As one executive put it: “We always try to move people around so that their perspectives evolve and things don’t get stale.”
So does it work? BCG has developed an Adaptive Advantage Index and applied it to over 2,200 public companies in the U.S. The index is strongly correlated to growth in market capitalization.
Why Decisions Fail can tell you what not to do. That’s an important perspective. On the other hand, the BCG study (and others like it) can tell you how to succeed. In my opinion, that’s more important. I’d rather focus on succeeding than not failing.