The central responsibility, for Boards and for individual Directors, is to make good decisions. What can Directors do to improve their decision making ability?
First, it is important to understand that decision making is a complex cognitive skill. It is not an innate talent that some people were granted at birth. Nor is it something that simply builds up with lots of experience – though experience is certainly relevant.
Rather, decision making is a cultivated skill, or in other words a domain of acquired expertise. So the question becomes – how can Directors acquire more of this expertise, particularly with regard to the specific kinds of decision challenges that come before Boards?
We can look to contemporary cognitive science for some insights here. A sub-field of cognitive science addresses the problem of expertise. Scientists in this area are basically asking “How do people get really good at something?”
The dominant answer that has emerged over the past few decades is not really all that surprising. To get really good, you need to do lots of good practice. To be the best, you need to do the most, best quality practice. The main reason Tiger Woods has been the top golfer is that he practised more, and more effectively, than anyone else.
For Directors, this means that to enhance your decision expertise, you need lots of practice making Board-type decisions. Note that it is quality practice you need, not necessarily experience. A Sunday golfer can accumulate lots of experience over the years, but their game never really improves because they are not working “on” their game. In fact, lots of experience can make it harder to improve skills, because it can entrench bad habits.
This is where Julie Garland Mclellan’s “Director’s Dilemma” newsletter, and her new book Dilemmas Dilemmas, are so valuable. They present lots of realistic case studies of decision problems of the kind that Directors regularly confront. They give lots of opportunities for Directors to work on their game.
However, simply working through the case studies – and reading the “model answers” provided – may not be enough. What really matters is how you practice. And here the key insight is the obvious point that if you’re not in some way changing the way you do things, then your expertise will not improve. To really get the benefit of working through case studies, you need to be expanding and refining your skill set.
Directors’ decision challenges, as illustrated in Dilemmas Dilemmas, are typically complex deliberative problems. That is, they involve clarifying the problem, recognising a range of options and perhaps suboptions, understanding the advantages and disadvantages of those options, and weighing up them up. The core skill is disentangling and evaluating a complex set of issues and arguments. How can a Director come to do this better?
One approach is to exploit the visual. We know, in general, that when confronted with complexity, the human mind performs better with suitable visualisations. A simple example: to understand how all the streets, train lines, etc., in a modern city are laid out, we use diagrams such as the maps found in a road atlas or, these days, the displays on GPS devices.
What is true for roads is even more true for deliberative decisions, which are abstract and indefinitely complex. The human mind can cope more easily when the options, pros and cons, arguments and detailed evidence are laid out in a visually attractive, easily scannable form. And the process of laying out the problem in this form can help introduce clarity and rigour. The overall result is better understanding of the problem, better evaluation of the options, and, on average, better choices being made.
This approach to decision making has been pioneered by Austhink, who have developed a software tool (bCisive) to support the process.
Austhink has teamed up with Julie Garland Mclellan to offer workshops combining her Board expertise and case studies with Austhink’s methods and tools. The workshops are intended primarily for “emerging” Directors – those who have recently become Directors, or hope to become Directors, or hope to take their directorial activity to a higher level. Our ambition is that these workshops would be one of the most effective things that Directors – at any level of experience or expertise – could do to enhance their decision making expertise. And if individual Directors can improve their game, Board decision making in general should also improve.