Despite the hugely complicated nature of policy-making in Washington, courage still counts for more than managing complexity, study suggests

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July 29, 2014

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At a time when a piece of Congressional legislation can run to thousands of pages, and regulations to enforce it can produce thousands more, it is hardly surprising that policy-making has come to be seen as a hugely complex undertaking. In these circumstances, the predominant view is that the greatest danger to good decision-making is what is called "groupthink," where leaders cut off dissent and the free flow of information. Good leaders, the thinking goes, should seek out widely diverse knowledge and opinions and also be willing to revise their initial views in response to group deliberations.

It was to gauge how top-rated federal officials differ from more run-of-the-mill government executives in adopting this general approach, called "vigilant problem-solving," that several management scholars set out to interview in depth ten representatives of each group in the Obama administration. In the process, they were surprised to find that what makes for superior decisions, even in 21st century Washington, is not only -- or even primarily -- leaders' ability to navigate complexity, but something a lot more elemental..

The study, to be presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management   (Philadelphia, August 1-5), notes that nine of the ten outstanding executives who were asked for their most difficult decisions "did not identify decisions that were informationally complex." Instead, what they considered most hard "was not deciding...the right thing to do but [being] willing to do it. In other words, these were decisions requiring courage in the face or some personal, political, or organizational risk."

The paper, by Steven Kelman of Harvard University and Ronald Sanders, Gayatri Pandit, and David Mader of Booz Allen Hamilton, draws part of its title from "I Won't Back Down," the classic song by singer/songwriter Tom Petty. "Is Petty's declaration a good approach to executive decision making?" they ask. "The literature suggests that the answer is just the opposite" -- namely that "the effective decision-maker needs, as an individual, to have the disposition and the ability to gather new information, and to 'back down' ".

But this approach of vigilant problem-solving, the authors continue, while "ideally suited to decisions involving complexity, may not be appropriate in situations where a difficult decision has more to do with courage and character" -- in other words, is not helpful in decisions that nine of the ten outstanding executives said were the hardest to make. What is required in these situations is "a sense of moral identity along with steadfastness actually to make the wrenching decision. And the appropriate decision-making process may require advisers who steel the decision-maker to display the needed resolve."

Elaborating on this last point, they add: "If showing courage is hard, it would seem the last thing the executive needs from advisers... is more questioning about whether the executive really should make the courageous decision. Instead... what they need is just the opposite: moral support for resolve in making the tough decision - to avoid a temptation, in Margaret Thatcher's vivid phrase, to 'go wobbly.' "

In fact, most of the nine outstanding executives who identified courage as key to their toughest decisions made them pretty much on their own, the study finds. In the authors' words, "Five of the nine...essentially made the decision by themselves, not involving others (at least after any background information had been gathered)."

What was the nature of the most difficult decisions? While a commitment to confidentiality prevents the study's authors from furnishing specific details, they cite a number of revealing comments of executives:

■    "Not fighting is actually not that hard of a choice in government because there's so little actual accountability. So at the end of the day, on all of these things, I've had to just say, 'All right, I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to go do it.' "

■    "Sometimes what you have to do is as clear as day, but the implementation is going to be difficult.… If you start to care more about what people think about you than your job, you're going to start compromising your decisions... 'Well, there's a political consequence to it,' they say. Well, I'm going, 'Yeah, guess what. That's life.' "

■   "We decided to stop 45 programs. .. I'm asking my Cabinet Secretary boss I'd been working for exactly thirty days to trust me on this one. …I'm not wading into the pool. I'm going to belly-smacker this thing, and it's either going to work really well or it's going to be really bad. "

■    "[When I  wanted to roll out a program at a second locale], everybody was saying, 'Are you out of your mind?'... [because] it didn't do well at installation one...and it had to be redone. And I said, 'How are you going to know if it works, if you fixed it, unless you take it somewhere else?'...It's just working against the inertia and the grain of the department, because we are pretty risk-averse as an organization. But in my heart of hearts, I knew it was the right thing to do, because, otherwise, you don't know whether or not this thing is successful."

While distinguishing courage from the ability to cope with complexity, the authors acknowledge that in theory decisions can require both, but reiterate that "among the decisions we characterize as involving courage, none of the nine discussed by the outstanding executives...is also complex cognitively." Still, even courageous executives have to deal with complex issues in the course of carrying out their duties, the researchers concede, which leads them to suggest that "successful executives must be able...to be ambidextrous in decision processes they use. The executive must be able to organize for vigilant decision-making for the run of important decisions, but be prepared to turn this approach off when courage is required. Advisers should also be able to be ambidextrous, sensing when their leader needs discussion, debate, and dissent, and when he or she needs moral support." The fact that five of the outstanding group made their toughest decisions alone suggests that "for at least that decision many executives were able to switch off the normal processes they would use for the run of important decisions." 

The researchers selected their ten outstanding executives, who were at senior subcabinet levels, on the basis of nominations from 54 distinguished current and former government officials and scholars, while the remaining ten officials, holding analogous positions, were chosen at random. Interviews of up to four hours in length were conducted in 2012 and 2013. The research steers clear of officials involved in foreign policy or military crises out of a sense that there has been considerably more research on decision-making in these sectors than in the normal operations of domestic agencies. Although the study focuses exclusively on federal officials, Prof. Kelman and his colleagues consider its major findings largely applicable to decision-making in the business world as well.

In sacrificing breadth for depth, the research largely forfeits the possibility of finding statistically significant differences between the two groups. In addition, they proved more similar than expected, Prof. Kelman says, particularly in their approach to complexity. The professor sees this as reflecting the deliberative culture of the federal bureaucracy, with its propensity to study issues from many angles, sometimes at the cost of falling victim to indecisiveness and what has been called "paralysis by analysis."

Still, the study does note some important differences between the two groups, including the following:

•   Outstanding executives were more likely than controls to identify courage as essential to their hardest decisions (9 of 10, compared to 5 of 10);

•    They were more inclined than controls to gather information from written sources (18 mentions versus 10 for controls) and from outside academics (4 versus 1), which leads the authors to observe that "these kinds of sources may provide the benefits of information available to use for decisions emphasizing courage where the executive wishes to cut back on search from a wide group of advisers."

•    They enumerated slightly more techniques to encourage dissent (1.6 techniques versus 1.2 for controls) and were more likely, in the words of one survey question, "to bring in people in the organization with different points of view" (7.2 on a scale of 1 to 10 versus 5.8 for controls). "Again," the authors note, "this suggests greater attention to organizing for vigilance for the normal run of decisions, but can be more easily dialed down for decisions involving courage."

•    They were notably less likely to count on the support of senior civil servants on decisions contrary to their advice (1.1 versus 2.3 on a scale of 1 to 5). 

In conclusion, the authors concede that the most difficult decisions "are not ones executives make all the time. But the fact that these are kinds of decisions occurring in ordinary organizational contexts rather than very rare decisions of earth-shattering significance makes thinking about how decision processes should be organized to deal with them more important for thinking about decision-making in organizations."

Entitled "'I Won't Back Down': Complexity and Courage in U.S. Federal Executive Decision Making," the study will be among some 4,000 research reports to be presented at the Academy of Management annual meeting, in Philadelphia from August 1to 5. Founded in 1936, the Academy of Management is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has about 19,400 members in 118 countries. This year's annual meeting will draw some 10,000 scholars and practitioners for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business strategy, organizational behavior, corporate governance, careers, human resources, technology development, and other management-related topics.

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