Archive for the ‘Communication’ Category
This post is inspired by a comment made by my elder son some years ago:
“Dad’s driving” he said.
A simple statement, one would think, with not much scope for ambiguity or misunderstanding. Yet, as I’ll discuss below, the two words had deeper implications than suggested by their mere dictionary meanings.
The story begins in mid 2010, when I was driving my son Rohan back from a birthday party.
I’m not much a driver – I get behind the wheel only when I absolutely have to, and then too with some reluctance. The reason I was driving was that my dear wife (who does most of the driving in our household) was pregnant with our second child and just a few weeks away from the big day. She therefore thought it would be a good idea for me to get some driving practice as I would soon need to do a fair bit.
Back to the story: as we started the trip home, my son (all of seven and half at the time) said, “Dad, you should go by North Road, there’s a traffic light there, it will be easier for you to turn right.”
“Nah, I’ll go the shorter way.”
“Dad, the shorter way has no traffic light. It has a roundabout, you might have trouble making a right turn.” He sounded worried.
“Don’t worry, I can handle a simple right turn at a roundabout on a Sunday evening. You worry too much!”
As it happened I had an accident at the roundabout…and it was my fault.
I checked that he was OK then got out of the car to speak with the unfortunate whose car door I had dented. Rohan sat patiently in the car while I exchanged details with the other party.
I got back in and asked again if he was OK. He nodded. We set off and made it home without further incident.
My wife was horrified to hear about the whole thing of course. Being pretty philosophical about my ineptness at some of the taken-for-granted elements of modern existence, she calmed down very quickly. In her usual practical way she asked me if I had reported the accident to the police, which I hadn’t. I reported the accident and made an appointment with the a smash repairer to fix up the damage to the bumper.
A week later my wife summoned me from work saying it was time. I duly drove her to the hospital without incident. A few hours later, our second son, Vikram, was born.
I pick up the story again a few days later, after we had just got used to having an infant in the house again. Sleep deficit was the order of the day, but life had to go on: Rohan had to get to school, regardless of how well or badly Vik had slept the previous night; and I had to get to work.
Soon Rohan and I had our morning routine worked out: we would walk to school together, then I would catch a bus from outside his school after dropping him there.
On the day Rohan uttered the words I started this post with, it was raining heavily – one of those torrential downpours that are a Sydney characteristic. It was clear that walking to school would be impossible, I would have to drive him there.
My wife gave him the bad news.
“Dad’s driving,” he said, in what appeared to be his usual matter of fact way.
However, if one listened carefully, there was a hint of a question, even alarm, in his words.
Given the back-story one can well understand why.
According to the most commonly accepted theory of truth, the validity of a statement depends on whether or not it is factually correct – i.e. a statement is true if it corresponds to some of aspect of reality. Philosophers refer to this as the correspondence theory of truth . There are a few other well known theories of truth but it would take me too far afield to discuss them here. See my post on data, information and truth if you are interested in finding out more.
Of course, it is true that Rohan’s statement would in retrospect either be true (if I did drive him to school) or false (if I didn’t). But that was hardly the point: there was a lot more implied in his words than just an observation that I would be driving him to school that day. In other words, his meaning had little do with any objective truth. Consider the following possibilities:
There was a hint of alarm in his words:
“Dad’s driving!” (I could almost hear the, “ I’m not getting in the car with him”)
…and even the hint of a question:
“Dad’s driving?” (…”You can’t be serious – you do remember what happened a couple of weeks ago, don’t you?…”)
Whatever the thoughts running through his head, it is clear that Rohan saw the situation quite differently from the way my wife or I did.
Indeed, the main problem with correspondence theories of truth is that they require the existence of an objective reality that we can all agree on – i.e. that we all perceive in the same way. This assumption is questionable, especially for issues that cannot be settled on logical grounds alone. Typical examples of such issues are those that are a matter of opinion – such as which political party is best or whether a certain book is worth reading…or even whether certain folks should be allowed to get behind the wheel. These are issues that are perceived differently by different people; there is no clear cut right/wrong, true/false or black/white.
There are other problems with correspondence theories too. For one, it isn’t clear how they would apply to statements that are not assertions about something. For example, it makes no sense to ask whether questions such as, “how much is this?” or “how are you?” are true or false. Nevertheless, these statements are perfectly meaningful when uttered in the right situations.
This brings us to the crux of the matter: in most social interactions, the meaning of a statement (or action, for that matter) depends very much on the context in which it is made. Indeed, context rather than language determines meaning in our everyday interactions. For example, my statement, “It is sunny outside,” could be:
- An observation about the weather conditions (which could be true or false, as per the correspondence theory)
- A statement of anticipation – it is sunny so I can play with my kids in the park.
- A statement of regret – it’s going to be a scorching hot day and we’ll have to stay indoors.
To find out which one of the above (or many other possibilities) I mean, you would need to know the context in which the statement is made. This includes things such as the background, the setting, the people present, the prior conversation, my mood, others’ moods …the list is almost endless.
Context is king when it comes to language and meaning in social situations. Paraphrasing the polymath Gregory Bateson , the phenomenon of context and the closely related phenomenon of meaning are the key difference between the natural and social sciences. It is possible in physics to formulate laws (of say, gravity) that are relatively independent of context (the law applies on Jupiter just the same as it does on earth). However, in the social sciences, general laws of this kind are difficult because context is important.
Indeed, this is why management models or best practices abstracted from context rarely work, if ever at all. They are not reality, but abstractions of reality. To paraphrase Bateson, all such approaches confuse the map with the territory.
I started this post almost three years ago, around the time the events related occurred. All I had written then were the lines I began this post with:
“Dad’s driving” he said. A simple statement, one would think, with not much scope for ambiguity or misunderstanding. ..
The lines lay untouched in a forgotten file on my computer until last weekend, when I came across them while cleaning up some old folders. At the time I had been reading Bateson’s classic, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, and had been mulling over his ideas about meaning and context. With that as background, the story came back to me with all its original force. The way forward was clear and the words started to flow.
Bateson was right, you know – context illuminates meaning.
My thanks go out to Arati Apte for comments and suggestions while this piece was in progress.
Regardless of how much we enjoy our work, there is a distinct disconnect between our professional and personal/social lives. A major reason for this gap is the (perceived) degree of control we have over what we do in the two spheres: in the former, we generally do as we are required to, even if we don’t agree with it; in the latter we (generally) follow our own interests and wishes.
In this post I explore the gap between the two worlds using the ideas of the social theorist and philosopher Juergen Habermas. My discussion draws upon a couple of sources: a short and very readable book by James Finlayson entitled, Habermas: A Very Short Introduction and a considerably heavier (but very enlightening) text by Mats Alvesson and Hugh Willmott entitled, Making Sense of Management: A Critical Introduction.
Communicative and strategic action
Juergen Habermas is best known for his theory of communicative rationality, wherein he argues that rationality (or reason) is tied to social interactions and dialogue. In other words, the exercise of reason ought to occur through open debate that is free from the constraints of power and politics. For a more detailed discussion of communicative rationality in an organisational setting, see my post entitled, More than just talk: rational dialogue in project environments or Chapter 7 of the book I wrote with Paul Culmsee.
Habermas terms collective actions that arise as a consequence of such dialogue communicative action. These are cooperative actions based on a shared understanding of the particular issue under consideration. The point Habermas makes is that many (most?) of the collective actions that we undertake in our work lives are not communicative because they are aimed at achieving a particular outcome regardless of whether or not there is any shared understanding about the objective or the means by which it should be achieved. Habermas terms such actions strategic.
To sum up: actions that are carried out in the professional sphere are invariably strategic, whereas those that are performed in the social/personal sphere can be communicative.
The system and the lifeworld
As mentioned in the first line of this post, our day-to-day lives are played out in two distinct spheres: the social arena which comprises our interactions with family and society at large, and the professional and administrative sphere in which we work and/or interact with institutional authority. Habermas refers to the former as the lifeworld and the latter as the system.
The lifeworld is the everyday world that we share with others. This includes all aspects of life barring organised or institution-driven ones. For example, it includes family life, culture and informal social interactions. In short: it is the sphere within which we lead much of our social and personal life. The lifeworld is based on a tacit fund of shared meanings and understandings that enable us to perform actions that we know others will comprehend. Thus day-to-day actions that we perform in the lifeworld are generally communicative in nature.
In contrast, the system refers to common patterns of strategic action that serve the interests of institutions and organisations. System actions are essentially driven by money and power. To put it somewhat crudely, the system uses money and power to manipulate individuals to achieve its own (i.e. the system’s) aims. These generally do not coincide with aims of individuals. The term instrumental action is used to describe actions via which individuals are manipulated in this way. Clearly, such actions are related to strategic actions, since they are aimed at achieving specific ends, regardless of whether or not there is a common understanding underlying the objectives.
The relationship between the system and the lifeworld
Historically, the system arose from prevailing social conditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The system is therefore embedded in the lifeworld. This wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that the system grows at the expense of the lifeworld , or in Habermas’ words, colonises the lifeworld. The verb evokes images that are quite appropriate: at a personal level, many people struggle to find that mythical balance between their work and personal/social lives, and in most cases it is a losing struggle because the former intrudes upon, invades and eventually takes over the latter.
This has little to do with personal choice. Although there are those who would say that we are free to opt out of the rat race, the truth is that most of us aren’t. To understand how things come to be this way, one has to recognise the role that power and money play in the colonisation process. These foster a self-interested “rational” attitude towards value which makes people amenable to being manipulated. Those who hold power and purse-strings can thus exert undue influence on the decisions of stakeholders while bypassing consensus-oriented communication (or rational dialogue) that is characteristic of the lifeworld. The lifeworld is thus devalued and becomes less and less important in the daily lives of people.
The colonisation of the lifeworld results in several dysfunctions that are all too evident in modern-day professional life. At the workplace this can manifest itself through a general sense of alienation from organisation, and a lack of shared meaning of its purpose and goals.
Critics of the Habermasian view sometimes argue that the modern day organisation is more enlightened – for example, HR departments are now aware of the need to foster an appropriate culture that focuses on employee inclusiveness, empowerment and similar feel-good themes. However, as Wilmott and Alvesson warn in their book, the concept of organisational culture is but an insidious means of control that aims at getting employees to think in ways that the organisation would like them to (also see this paper by Wilmott – if only for its truly memorable title…)
The problem with management practice
Notwithstanding the fact that there are islands of enlightened management, it would not be a stretch to say that many managerial strategies and actions serve to perpetuate, even grow the system at the expense of the lifeworld. As Alvesson and Willmott state in their book:
Within the rationality of the system individuals are treated as numbers or categories (e.g. grades of employees determined by qualifications, or types of clients determined by market segments), and more generally as objects whose value lies in reproducing the system….
However, the instrumental logic of the system – i.e. the logic which “justifies” the manipulation of individuals – is ultimately self-defeating. As Alvesson and Willmott note:
The devaluation of lifeworld properties is perverse because the instrumental rationality of the system depends on the communicative rationality of the lifeworld, even though it appears to function independently of lifeworld understandings and competences. At the very least, the system depends upon human beings who are capable of communicating effectively and who are not manipulated and demoralized to the point of being incapable of cooperation and productivity.
The central problem of present day management practice is that this issue remains largely unaddressed.
A way forward?
To be fair, it is impossible to achieve open dialogue in the sense of Habermas at the level of, say, an organisation. Nevertheless, as Paul and I discuss in our book, it is eminently possible to approximate it in smaller settings over short time periods. In case you don’t have a copy of our book at hand, see our paper entitled, Towards a holding environment: building shared understanding and commitment on projects, for a detailed case study illustrating this point.
Before going any further, I should state clearly that the approach we propose is but one of many. One does not have to use any particular technique or approach, all one needs is the possibility of engaging in genuine dialogue with those who have a stake in the issue under consideration. This needs an environment that is (relatively) free from power, politics and other constraints that come in the way of open, honest discussion. Although it is impossible to create such an environment at an organisational level, it is quite possible to approximate it at on a smaller scale – say, for example, in a one-on-one interaction or even a workgroup discussion.
Interactions that occur in such a holding environment are a step forward from present day practice because they acknowledge the existence of the lifeworld, something that has long been denied by mainstream management.
In their book, Alvesson and Wilmott use the metaphor of organisations as structures of communicative interactions. In our paper and book, we invoke an alternate metaphor coined by Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores: organisations as networks of commitments. Genuine commitments are possible only when people’s concerns and aspirations are heard, acknowledged and acted upon. And this is possible only via communicative or open dialogue.
In closing, I reiterate my main point: although it is impossible to create an environment that encourages genuine dialogue at the level of an entire organisation, it is certainly possible approximate it on a smaller scale. The importance of this cannot be overstated, for although one cannot change the system overnight one can bring it closer to the lifeworld, one interaction at a time.
Much of what is termed communication in organisations is but a one-way, non-interactive process of information transfer. It doesn’t seem right to call this communication, and other terms such as propaganda carry too much baggage. In view of this, I’ve been searching for an appropriate term for some time. Now – after reading a paper by Terence Moran entitled Propaganda as Pseudocommunication – I think I have found one.
Moran’s paper discusses how propaganda, particularly in the social and political sphere, is packaged and sold as genuine communication even though it isn’t - and hence the term pseudo-communication. In this post,I draw on the paper to show how one can distinguish between communication and pseudo-communication in organisational life.
Moran’s paper was written in 1978, against a backdrop of political scandal and so, quite naturally, many of the instances of pseudo-communication he discusses are drawn from the politics of the time. For example, he writes:
As Watergate should have taught us, the determined and deliberate mass deceptions that are promulgated via the mass media by powerful political figures cannot be detected, much less combated easily.
Such propaganda is not the preserve of politicians alone, though. The wonderful world of advertising illustrates how pseudo-communication works in insidious ways that are not immediately apparent. For example, many car or liquor advertisements attempt to associate the advertised brand with sophistication and style, suggesting that somehow those who consume the product will be transformed into sophisticates.
As Moran states:
It was reported in the Wall Street Journal of August 14, 1978 that the the Federal Trade Commission finally has realized that advertisements carry messages via symbol systems other than language. The problem is in deciding how to recognise, analyse and legislate against deceptive messages…
Indeed! And I would add that the problem has only become worse in the 30 odd years since Mr. Moran wrote those words.
More relevant to those of us who work in organisation-land, however, is the fact that sophisticated pseudo-communication has wormed its way into the corporate world, a prime example being mission/vision statements that seem to be de rigueur for corporations. Such pseudo-communications are rife with platitudes, a point that Paul Culmsee and I explore at length in Chapter 1 of our book.
Due to the increasing sophistication of pseudo-communication it can sometimes be hard to distinguish it from the genuine stuff. Moran offers some tips that can help us do this.
Distinguishing between communication and pseudo-communication
Moran describes several characteristics of pseudo-communication vis-à-vis its authentic cousin. I describe some of these below with particular reference to pseudo-communication in organisations.
1. Control and interpretation
In organisational pseudo-communication the receiver is not free to interpret the message as per his or her own understanding. Instead, the sender determines the meaning of the message and receivers are expected to “interpret” the message as the sender requires them to. An excellent example of this are corporate mission/vision statements – employees are required to understand these as per the officially endorsed interpretation.
Summarising: in communication control is shared between the sender and receiver whereas in pseudo-communication, control rests solely with the sender.
2. Stated and actual purpose
To put it quite bluntly, the aim of most employee-directed corporate pseudo communication is to get employees to behave in ways that the organisation would like them to. Thus, although pseudo-communiques may use words like autonomy and empowerment they are directed towards achieving organisational objectives, not those of employees.
Summarising: in communication the stated and actual goals are the same whereas in pseudo-communication they are different. Specifically, in pseudo-communication actual purposes are hidden and are often contradictory to the stated ones.
3. Thinking and analysis
Following from the above it seems pretty clear that the success of organisational pseudo-communication hinges on employees not analysing messages in an individualistic or critical way. If they did, they would see it for them for the propaganda that they actually are. In fact, it isn’t a stretch to say that most organisational pseudo-communication is generally are aimed at encouraging groupthink at the level of the entire organisation.
A corollary of this is that in communication it is assumed that the receiver will act on the message in ways that he or she deems appropriate whereas in pseudo-communication the receiver is encouraged to act in “organisationally acceptable” ways.
Summarising: in communication it is expected that receivers will analyse the message individually in a critical way so as to reach their own conclusions. In pseudo-communication however, receivers are expected to think about the message in a standard, politically acceptable way.
4. Rational vs. emotional appeal
Since pseudo-communication works best by dulling the critical faculties of recipients, it seems clear that it should aim evoke a emotional response rather than a rational (or carefully considered) one. Genuine communication, on the other hand, makes clear the relationship between elements of the message and supporting evidence so that receivers can evaluate it for themselves and reach their own conclusions.
Summarising: communication makes an appeal to the receivers’ critical/rational side whereas pseudo-communication aims to make an emotional connection with receivers.
5. Means and ends
In organisational pseudo-communication such as mission/vision statements and the strategies that arise from it, the ends are seen as justifying the means. The means are generally assumed to be value-free in that it is OK to do whatever it takes to achieve organisational goals, regardless of the ethical or moral implications. In contrast, in (genuine) communication, means and ends are intimately entwined and are open to evaluation on rational and moral/ethical bases.
Summarising: in pseudo-communication, the ends are seen as justiying the means whereas in communication they are not.
6. World view
In organisational pseudo-communication the the organisation’s world is seen as being inherently simple, so much so that it can be captured using catchy slogans such as “Delivering value” or “Connecting people” or whatever. Communication, on the other hand, acknowledges the existence of intractable problems and alternate worldviews and thus viewing the world as being inherently complex. As Moran puts it, “the pseudo-communicator is always endeavouring to have us accept a simplified view of life.” Most corporate mission and vision statements will attest to the truth of this.
Summarising: pseudo communication over-simplifies or ignore difficult or inconvenient issues whereas communication acknowledges them.
Although Moran wrote his paper over 30 years ago, his message is now more relevant and urgent than ever. Not only is pseudo-communication prevalent in politics and advertising, it has also permeated organisations and even our social relationships. In view of this, it is ever more important that we are able to distinguish pseudo-communication from the genuine stuff. Incidentally, I highly recommend that reading the original paper -it is very readable and even laugh-out-loud funny in parts.
Finally, to indulge in some speculation: I wonder why pseudo-communication is so effective in the organisational world when even a cursory analysis exposes its manipulative nature. I think an answer lies in the fact that modern organisations use powerful, non-obtrusive techniques such as organisational culture initiatives to convince their people of the inherent worth of the organisation and their roles in it. Once this is done, it makes employees less critical and hence more receptive to pseudo-communication. Anyway, that is fodder for another post. For now, I leave you to ponder the points made above and perhaps use them in analysing (pseudo)communication in your own organisation.
There is a curious disconnect between the theory and practice of project management: the former is epitomized by various BOKs and methodologies which lay out a rational framework for managing projects whereas the latter is the reality that project managers experience when they are immersed in the day-to-day activities associated with managing projects.
Although most organisations would claim that they have implemented a project management methodology of some sort, the actual day to day work of a project often proceeds with a logic of its own. Moreover, the requirements imposed by methodologies may even obstruct the progress of a project: it is not uncommon to hear of situations in which project managers and teams had to bypass their organisation’s processes in order to get things done.
The reason for this is not hard to find: projects – and indeed, organisations – are often faced with unexpected and unforeseen events. Typically, responses to such events have to be improvised, not planned. Although planners are expected to factor in uncertainty, what is not known cannot be foreseen. As we all know from experience, the future always manages to escape our carefully laid plans.
In this post I argue that the traditional (rational) mode of project communication – involving artifacts such as business cases, plans and status reports – is lacking when one has to deal with uncertainty. Instead of communication based on rationality (or arguments based on facts), an alternate mode that focuses on rhetoric (arguments based on values and emotions) may sometimes be more fruitful.
[Aside: in a strict sense of the term, rationality is a form of rhetoric, but in this article I’ll consider the latter term as applying to values and emotions.]
Shortcomings of “rational” project communication
Traditional project communication tends to be more about conveying information rather than encouraging debate. Specifically, project-related communications, be they verbal or written, emphasise facts and numbers rather than emotions and feelings. For example, a status report may convey the status of the project in terms of milestones achieved or figures such as percent complete. Moreover, even though a project manager may highlight qualitative information such as risks, he or she will do so in a way that assures the recipients that the assessments have been made in an objective manner. In short, project communications reflect the scientific-rational basis of project management itself.
In view of the above, it is no surprise that project communications tend to assume that the future can be predicted on the basis of clear cause-effect relationships. For example, project plans describe future deliverables that will be the outcome of certain planned actions. Indeed, that’s the whole rationale behind implementing project management processes – they are supposed to ensure that, if implemented right, the objectives will be achieved “on budget and on time” as envisaged.
That’s great in theory, but theory is good only for the classroom. As most of us know from experience, reality is messy: stuff happens; things turn unexpected in a thousand and one different ways. In short, our projects escape our plans.
How do people deal with this messiness? Closer home: what do you do when your project takes an unexpected turn south?
In such situations it is not unusual to feel that the seemingly rational edifice on which your project is based is not so sound after all. You may therefore be forced to examine the assumptions that you have taken for granted. Consequently, you may ask yourself questions such as:
Is my approach sound?
Am I doing the project right?
Or, even more basic: am I doing the right project?
It is difficult to answer questions with any certainty, particularly when the future events are yet to unfold. You need to make a decision, but to do so you need to get everyone on the same page. This is difficult to do because when facts are few, everyone seems to have a different opinion about what the “true” problem is and how it should be tackled. Some may even believe there is no problem at all.
A role for rhetoric
As we all know from experience, most people are attached to their opinions. It is going to take more than a logical argument to convince them to change their minds. Moreover, in situations of uncertainty and ambiguity, facts and numbers are scarce, and always prone to being contested by some recalcitrant stakeholders. So one has to work with opinions that are based on values and emotions rather than objective facts.
When one is attempting to convince people about something that depends on values rather than facts, the words and language constructs one uses are all important. That’s where rhetoric or the “art of debate” comes into its own. According to Wikipedia:
Rhetoric is the art of discourse, an art that aims to improve the facility of speakers or writers who attempt to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations.
Of course, glib talkers (expert rhetoricians!) are often wrong, so it would be unwise accept rhetoric uncritically. One has to subject rhetorical arguments to scrutiny just as one would with any argument. The value of rhetoric, however, is that it gets people thinking along lines that they may not have considered otherwise.
In the present day, rhetoric has acquired a negative connotation because it is often used for dubious ends – for example, demagogues use it to whip up emotions and (some) politicians to vilify others. But conversely it might also motivate people to come up with creative ways out of difficult or even impossible situations. Some of the most inspiring and world-changing speeches in history are masterpieces of rhetoric (Martin Luther King’s, I have a dream being one that comes to mind)
…and so, to conclude
Most of us don’t want to change the world, we just want to get on with our jobs. My aim in this essay was to suggest the mode of communication that we have been programmed to use may not always be appropriate There is an alternative that may sometimes be better. Rhetoric isn’t just for lawyers and politicians; it has its place in the day to day work of managing projects. The “complete” project manager– if such a person exists –knows that there is no contradiction in this and, more important, tacitly recognizes when a particular mode of communication is appropriate.
…and in case you are wondering what on earth this has to do with Zen philosophy, the answer is: quite possibly, nothing at all.
Decision-making is a key activity at all levels in an organisation. All employees make decisions: from the front-line employee who has to decide how to handle a difficult customer to an executive who has to choose between projects that are competing for funding. Given this it is no surprise that a vast body of knowledge – decision theory – has been developed to support the process of decision making.
Decision theory concerns itself with rational decision making– that is, decisions that are based on an objective evaluation of available options and their consequences, leading to a choice that is made on the basis of such an evaluation alone. In reality, though, many decisions are not made this way. In this post I look at the different ways in which decisions are actually made in organisations, drawing on a brilliant essay by James March entitled, How Decisions Happen in Organizations.
Decision making as a rational process
The standard view of decision making is that it is a process of rational choice based on:
- Knowledge of alternatives
- Knowledge of the consequences of each of the alternatives
- Ordered preferences by which consequences can be evaluated
- Rule(s) by which a particular alternative can be selected
In its basic form, decision theory assumes that each of the above is fully known. As March states:
In the most familiar form of the model, we assume that all alternatives, the probability distribution of consequences conditional on each alternative, and the subjective value of each possible consequence are known; we assume a choice is made by selecting the alternative with the highest expected value. This emphasis on expected value may be moderated by a risk preference (i.e.,some value associated with the variability of the outcome distribution).
However, there are a number of challenges to this ideal picture of decision-making. These include:
- Uncertainty about consequences of actions: The standard theory of rational choice assumes that decision-makers have knowledge of all possible outcomes of actions. However, this is not possible because humans are boundedly rational – their ability to seek and process information is limited by their cognitive abilities and available resources. Quite often it happens that consequences reveal themselves only after a decision has been made and implemented. As March mentions, “…management requires tolerance of the idea that the meaning of yesterday’s action will be discovered in the experiences and interpretations of today…”
- Uncertainty about preferences: The standard theory assumes that preferences are stable and consistent. Quite often, it happens that preferences change with time and different preferences can be inconsistent with each other.
- The role of risk: Typically, in theories of rational decision making risk appetite (of an individual or organisation) is treated as a single fixed number. In reality, it varies with situational factors such as level of threat to survival, excess resources available etc. Moreover, it also depends on the (often unarticulated) hopes and fears of individuals who are making the decision.
- Conflict between decision makers: Rational theories of decision making assume that conflict between decision makers can be resolved by (rationally!) evaluating conflicting alternatives and choosing the best one based on an agreed decision rule. The problem is that in such situations it is often impossible to come up with such a decision rule. Negotiations over criteria can go on interminably and conclude without agreement. March suggests that the reasons why decisions get made despite this is that people rely on trust and reputation rather than formal agreements in order to reach a consensus.
So as we see, the rational view of decision making has less practical relevance than one might expect. It is part of the story of decision making, but definitely not the whole tale.
Decision making as a rule-based activity
An alternate logic of decision making is that of following rules, obligations and duties; doing what is appropriate rather than what is rational. As March puts it:
Much of the decision-making behavior we observe reflects the routine way in which people do what they are supposed to do. For example, most of the time, the majority of people in organizations follow rules, even when it is not obviously in their self-interest to do so. Much of the behavior in an organization is specified by standard operating procedures, professional standards, cultural norms, and institutional structures. The terminology is one of duties and roles rather than anticipatory, consequential choice.
Within a logic of appropriateness, people make decisions by mapping the aspects of the decision they are required to make to what is appropriate in such situations. In particular, they consider the following:
- Situation: what kind of a situation is this?
- Identity: who am I? What kind of position do I hold in the organisation?
- Determining an appropriate choice: What should a person like me (or in my position) do in this kind of situation?
In such a process the focus is on doing what is right (as per the rules) rather than searching for rationally determined best choice.
The interesting question is how these rules come into existence. March describes three ways in which this happens:
- Rules are developed through experience and are modified by feedback on what worked well and what didn’t. In this view organisations create rules.
- Rules are selected (rather than developed) based on their suitability for a group or organisation. In this view, rules have an existence independent of organisations.
- Rules spread from organisation to organisation – much like “fads or measles.” In this view, rules are created in idiosyncratic ways (through an innovative or quirky choices made by an individual, say) and then, if they are successful, are copied others. Many popular management practices have their roots in such fads.
Summarising: decisions can be based on appropriate choices rather than rational ones.
Decision making as a contingent event
The views of decision making embodied in the logic of rationality and appropriateness assume that the cause-effect relationships between decisions and outcomes are well understood and that organizational rules and hierarchies actually control outcomes. However, in reality things tend to be less straightforward. For example:
- Many things happen at the same time, each competing for the attention of decision makers. The attention a decision maker gives to a problem thus depends on the other things that are on her mind at the time.
- Individual perceptions of situations vary, thus making the formulation of a decision problem difficult (in effect, making it a wicked problem).
In cases such as these, the decisions are contingent on factors that have nothing to do with the decision itself. As examples, an executive who is distracted by personal problems may not give enough attention to a decision problem at hand and a bunch of stakeholders who cannot agree may end up making a decision that cannot be justified via rationality or appropriateness.
Decision making as a byproduct of other factors
The assumption underlying the foregoing discussion is that decisions affect outcomes and hence that decisions matter. However, as March points out:
Descriptions of decision arenas often seem to make little sense in such terms. Information that is ostensibly gathered for decisions is often ignored. Contentiousness of the policies of an organization is often followed by apparent indifference about their implementation. Individuals fight for the right to participate in decision processes, but then do not exercise the right. Studies of managers consistently indicate that very little time is spent making decisions. Rather, managers seem to spend time meeting people and executing managerial performances.
Based on the above, March makes the interesting point decision making is often a ritual activity that has little to do with the actual decision itself. The process of making a choice provides decision makers opportunities to do other things such as:
- Presenting and justifying their viewpoints to their peers.
- Distributing credit or blame for what has occurred.
- Reaffirming loyalties and friendships
An aspect of decision making made highlighted in the previous section is that there are many competing demands on a decision maker’s attention – for example, family, friends or personal goals. This is true in general: in the course of our lives, we are presented with a steady stream of choices, opportunities and problems. The degree to which each of these hold our attention depends on a host of factors including (but not restricted to) our values, duties and priorities. Because of these concurrent or nearly concurrent issues, the attention we give to a decision problem is closely linked to events that have recently occurred or are anticipated in the near future, and the priorities we assign to these. In such situations, the logic of decision making is temporal (dictated by time) rather than consequential or rule-based. In other words, our decisions depend on recent events and our immediate (or recent) environment.
In this article I have summarised various views of decision making drawing on the work of James March. We have seen that the official line about decision making being a rational process that is concerned with optimizing choices on the basis of consequences and preferences is not the whole story. Our decisions are influenced by a host of other factors, ranging from the rules that govern our work lives to our desires and fears, or even what happened at home yesterday. In short: the choices we make often depend on things we are only dimly aware of.