Let’s say that you’re arrested for a terrible crime. After a few months in jail, you’re taken to court for a trial. In the courtroom, you meet your lawyer for the first time. The judge selects a jury. You notice that all the jurors are white males and that they all went to the same business school.
As the trial begins the judge tells the jurors – very directly – that she believes you’re guilty. The prosecutor then uses Power Point to present the evidence against you. The presentation consists of over 200 slides.
Your lawyer is not allowed to present any evidence – he can only respond to the prosecutor’s slides. He raises a number of objections but the prosecutor handles each one smoothly. You notice that the prosecutor doesn’t refute the objections but merely brushes them aside. The slides are complicated and hard to follow. You notice that some of the jurors are glassy-eyed. Others are checking their BlackBerries.
When the prosecutor’s presentation concludes, the jurors don’t adjourn to a separate room to discuss the case. Rather, the judge simply asks them, “So, do you agree with me?” Most of the jurors nod their heads and you’re whisked off to jail.
Could that really happen? Let’s hope not in a court of law. But, as Chip and Dan Heath point out in their book, Decisive, that’s exactly how corporations make bazillion dollar decisions. Echoing Paul Nutt’s book, Why Decisions Fail, the Heaths point out that most business decisions really are one sided.
Here’s how it goes. An executive gets an idea that just might be brilliant – or not. Then a process begins to justify the idea and convince top management to support it. Most of the members of top management recognize that a justification process is going on. They don’t really object to it because 1) they don’t have a forum to present their ideas; and 2) they don’t have the resources to develop the other side of the story or to investigate alternatives.
The justification process grinds on. As the Heaths point out, the process usually results in a “whether or not” decision. Executives don’t consider a range of alternatives but simply vote up or down, yes or no.
The process usually includes a top management meeting with a barrage of Power Point slides. I’ve participated in dozens of them. Usually someone in the meeting says, “Well, let me play devil’s advocate for a moment ….” No matter what that person says, the objection is somehow handled and brushed aside. The devil’s advocate may have a good point but he doesn’t have the data to back it up. The result is that the group feels “better” about the decision … “after all, we did consider both sides.”
Paul Nutt writes that business “…decisions fail half of the time. Vast sums are spent without realizing any benefits for the organization.” In other words, we could flip a coin and do just as well – and save a bundle on consulting fees.
We often complain about our judicial system. But the trial by jury – with evenly matched sides presenting evidence – is probably the best system ever developed for discerning the truth when the evidence is murky. In business, the evidence is often murky; we’re trying to predict the future with incomplete data. You want the best decision? Put it on trial.