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In his book Principles, Ray Dalio, founder of the Bridgewater Associates hedge fund, offers two decision-making tips I’d like to add to the six I shared last week.

First: Don’t get hung up in your views of how things “should” be because you will miss out learning how they really are. Norm Wright, who shared Mr. Dalio’s ideas on his Striving Strategically blog, says that this urges a fact-oriented approach to every decision: “He does not suggest we ‘accept’ how things are. He simply says that we should learn how things are.”

The second principle is to remember that you’re looking for the best answer over all, not simply the best answer you can come up with yourself. “We often think of decision-making – especially decision-making on acute, personal matters – to be a private affair that we, ourselves, must handle. This is a terrible idea,” Mr. Wright adds.

But are we better making decisions with a group, or does that just dilute the end result? Does it take us further – to a higher place – or tug us back, to a modest, safe destination everyone can agree on?

In a recent blog post, consultant Art Petty said that the weighty decision during the Second World War to invade Europe on D-Day was made in the end by one man, U.S. general Dwight Eisenhower. With the weather not favourable and his advisers split on the decision, he said simply, “Okay, we’ll go,” and that was it.

“While a great deal of time is invested in the pursuit of consensus, I’ve always viewed consensus as a tyranny of mediocrity. Groups often water down decisions in a drive to appease all viewpoints. In theory, a group should be able to make a better decision than the smartest individual. That theory is nice until reality, biases, politics, and all manner of filters rise and join the process, particularly in moments where speed is of the essence,” Mr. Petty says.

He adds that human beings are messy decision makers and human beings in groups are potentially disastrous decision makers. That doesn’t mean you should give up collaborating on the tough topics. “It just means there will come a time when a big decision doesn’t bend to consensus,” he insists.

To an extent, all of us would agree with that. But is that ego speaking – too many times the group watered down or ignored our brilliant options? Is it frustration at facing too many meetings in our work life? Or is it good sense? There are certainly many brilliant decisions that were essentially made by one person but also many awful ones.

Creo Products Ltd., when I looked at the tech company for the 2002 book Employee Ownership written with professor Carol Beatty, taught staff four possible decision-making paths. Employees were treated as presidents of their own work: If the decision was small, affecting only the decision maker, or if a quick decision was needed, they were instructed to decide on their own. If the number of people affected was small but the impact large, consensus was advised, with everyone following an “I can live with this" rule. If the impact was small but the number of people affected large, decisions were to be made democratically with the majority ruling. If the decision’s impact was large and the number of people affected was also large, a small group should form to hammer out a consensus with input from all affected shareholders.

That focuses on the situation – impact and people affected – rather than the brilliance of one individual, a useful and different way of looking at decision-making. It even says on some issues just take a vote and move on – no consensus needed. Everyone has to live with big decisions – subscribe to them – and while business folklore is filled with decisions single-mindedly rammed down an organization’s metaphorical throat by a larger-than-life individual, there are also times when nobody told the emperor he had no clothes or people failed to give a decision sufficient support and it failed.

There are also many techniques for countering the dangers of group think, to ensure rigorous analysis and even testing. I have worked in consensus situations where decisions have been terrific – not always with me initially agreeing with the course of action – and situations where I, as a single decision maker, or somebody I worked with as a single decision maker, made a decision that bombed. And good results, of course, or bad results, may not be the most accurate way of evaluating the quality of the decision.

Decision-making is complicated. Creo, Mr. Dalio and Mr. Petty all help us to understand the tricky aspects of mingling individuals in decision-making. There are no easy answers: Decision makers beware.


  • A recent study found that a two-minute breathing exercise before taking a decision can improve your result, perhaps because it adds to alertness and decreases stress. The specific formula: Inhale to a count of five, hold breath for a count of two, exhale to a count of seven and repeat.
  • Consultants David Benjamin and David Komlos, in the new book Cracking Complexity, urge you to consider whether a decision is simple, complicated or complex. Simple challenges are technical in nature, with straight-line, step-by-step solutions that can be implemented by anyone. Complicated challenges are also step-by-step but need expertise – in house, or from outside – to solve. Complex challenges are messy, unstable and unpredictable, requiring creative solutions.
  • Linguists have found certain sounds associated with male or female names. Applying that model to more than 1,000 commercially traded brands in 17 categories, researchers including Rotman School of Management’s Sridhar Moorthy found an overall bias to male names – a finding that occurred in products considered male-oriented and also in female-oriented ones.

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