Using foresight in decision making

Written by
Professor Martin Binks

13 Jul 2017

13 Jul 2017 • by Professor Martin Binks

Every organisation lives or dies by its decisions. It therefore seems reasonable to assume its decision-making processes should be characterised by rigour, creativity, vision and the most comprehensive outlook possible.

Unfortunately, in many instances this is far from the reality. Notwithstanding the age-old maxim “act in haste, repent at leisure”, the ability to make decisions swiftly is more likely to be championed as a strength than cited as a would-be failing. Quick-fix conclusions are celebrated; deliberation is dismissed as dithering.

Of course, there are occasions when speed is of the essence. Deadlines drive dynamism. Yet the belief that rapidity is the definitive gauge of problem-solving prowess is both mistaken and potentially dangerous, and too often what was perceived as praiseworthy purposefulness is subsequently revealed to have been an ill-advised rush to judgement.

Conscious irresponsibility

One of the reasons why hindsight is a wonderful thing is that it offers an infinite variety of “what ifs”. Rarely can we resist a peek at the road not taken. Sometimes it proves us right, but in the majority of cases it lays bare how misguided our decisions have been.

Tellingly, we are seldom especially surprised when these inadequacies are exposed. We ruefully survey the consequences, belatedly ponder the alternative scenarios and pretty much confess to ourselves that we always rather suspected this would happen. This amounts to an overdue acknowledgment of not just irresponsibility but conscious irresponsibility. We are distantly aware of the perils of defaulting to the nearest plausible option, yet we do it anyway. It is irrational behaviour, and we are all prone to it.

Worse still, individuals have an innate resistance to changing course. As a result, even when we start to realise we have erred and hindsight begins to unmask our mistakes, we plough on regardless. Blame culture, which thrives on our fear of being wrong, can further exacerbate the situation.

All of this stems from a tendency to apply the “what if” rule of thumb retrospectively. What if – yes, there it is again – we were to replace hindsight with foresight? The fact is that we are asking the wrong question. We should not be asking: “What if we had done this?” We should be asking: “What if we were to do this?”

Decisions stem from ideas

A fundamental failing of many decision-making methodologies is that they assume choices come neatly packaged and ready-made. It may well be tempting to believe there exists some kind of magical catalogue of fully formed options to cater for each and every eventuality, but this is a dangerous misconception. Decisions should stem from ideas, and the best ideas are not chosen: they are conceived.

To develop a more inclusive range of possible solutions it is first vital to understand the question at hand. We have to deconstruct before we can reconstruct. Scrutinising the causes and components of a problem, especially if it is a complicated one, is essential to generating creative responses.

Thereafter the aim should be a flood of suitably informed ideas that together cover as many “what ifs” as we are able to imagine. Some of these ideas will be good, others bad; some will be innovative, others incremental. Crucially, all will contribute towards the gradual emergence of the best of the bunch. It is only by producing myriad ideas and assessing the worth of every last one of them that we can identify the cream of the crop.

Interestingly, the thoroughness of this approach could be demonstrable. Much as the surgical checklist is regularly touted as one of the most significant breakthroughs in the history of healthcare, might the introduction of a decision-making checklist – in effect, an official record of procedural rigour – help transform how organisational choices are made and, just as significantly, how they are viewed in retrospect?

Short-term gains versus long-term benefits

Any suggestion that encourages an organisation to deploy additional resources is almost inevitably met with concerns about return on investment, and there is no denying that truly creative problem solving can demand time, energy and, yes, money. It is right to concede, too, that even the most effective attempt to deal with “what ifs” before rather than after the event does not guarantee success.

Ultimately, though, there has to be some balance between the lure of short-term gains and the prospect of long-term benefits. All things considered, I would suggest genuine waste lies not in pursuing novel concepts that might lead to dead ends but in deterring novel concepts in the first place.