How We Decide

I listened to NPR's All Things Considered on my i-pod as I flew over the Atlantic a few days ago. (I download one edition each week). One of the stories was a repeat of Terry Gross's discussion, in March 2009, with Johnah Lehrer on his book book How We Decide (repeated because the book has just come out in paperback.

The program introduction notes that Lehrer

describes himself as "pathologically indecisive". "I found myself spending literally a half an hour, 30 minutes, in the cereal aisle of the supermarket, trying to choose between boxes of Cheerios," he says. "That's when I realized I had a problem."

The struggle over cereal led Lehrer to contemplate much bigger questions – like what was actually happening in his head as he stood in the cereal aisle, and how much of that was rational versus emotional.

Finally, he decided to write a book about it. In How We Decide, Lehrer explores the science of how we make decisions and what we can do to make those decisions better.

I found the discussion fascinating, and followed up by going down to the bookshop and skimming through the book. Because I spend a lot of time with leaders who say they want better decision making processes in their organization I was looking to see how much Lehrer covered in the book on organizational decisions.

One of the points that stood out, for me, was the discussion of Lincoln's presidency. He apparently, intentionally filled his cabinet with politicians who had wildly competing ideologies. His view was that better decisions emerged from vigorous debate and listening to all points of view. Lehrer observes that "Good decisions rarely emerge from false consensus" and quotes a lovely statement from Alfred P. Sloan, then Chairman of General Motors, who adjourned a board meeting, telling members to go away and develop disagreement and "perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about".

Reckitt Benckhiser's CEO, Bart Becht, recently named 16th on HBR's top performing CEO list. is someone known for thinking consensus equals average and that better decisions result from almost combative discussions. In an interview reported in the UK's Daily Mail Becht states:

'We are not focused on endless debates to make sure everybody is aligned. But I wouldn't say it is not a caring place. Key to growth is innovation and that comes from people, Becht says: 'We have a different style culturally from other companies. We are more multicultural.

'We firmly believe that by having people from different backgrounds we get new ideas on the table much quicker than other companies.' Becht says he encourages staff to fight their corner, make mistakes and be entrepreneurial.

'If I have ten people with different backgrounds in a room they're not going to agree,' he goes on. 'So, as long as I have constructive conflict, by the end of the discussion they're going to come up with a perspective which is very different. That's what I want.

Tying together what Lehrer – the science writer, and Becht – the CEO, say there's a nice complementarity (on this particular point at least) that consensus without vigorous debate in which all views are laid out is unlikely to result in a good decision. The skill of the leader lies in helping the team members listen to each other and really examine the differences and opportunities before making a decision.