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Judgment Calls

By Thomas Davenport and Brook Manville

(Harvard Business Review Press, 266 pages, $30)


When we think of decision making, we usually think of a solitary person, weighed down by the burden of office, ruminating over choices and coming to a conclusion. It's a Great Man (or Great Woman) view of decision making and organizational performance.

But organizations are social places. And in Judgment Calls, Thomas Davenport, a professor at Babson College in Massachusetts, and consultant Brook Manville preach the virtues of Great Organizations – organizations that build the capacity to make great decisions again and again.

These organizations tap into the broad range of expertise available to them from employees, customers and suppliers alike.

"Great organizations expand the number of people involved in important decisions, because they know that while individual humans are fallible, in the aggregate they are usually more effective," the authors write.

The book revolves around 12 positive stories about decision making, rather than looking at bad decisions (as is common in books on this topic). One story cited is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which is often featured in discussions about decision making because of the failure to heed warning signals about the Challenger's O-rings, resulting in the fatal 1986 explosion.

Here, the focus is on the question of whether the Discovery shuttle had a faulty valve in the systems supplying fuel to the engines, integral to maintaining pressure in the vital hydrogen tank. The previous mission had experienced that problem and was completed successfully, but the fear was a disaster would occur if it were not fixed.

The commission that had examined the Challenger disaster found that pressure to maintain the shuttle's launch schedule led to managers minimizing the dangers posed by the O-rings. And discussions about the issue took place in a series of meetings of different players, sometimes by teleconference.

But that practice had been changed and when the faulty Discovery valve was being evaluated in 2009, the technical teams and managers met in one room – 150 people in all – to make the go/no-go decision. It was preceded by a series of smaller team meetings and technical reviews, but the final decision was made face-to-face – and it took three sessions to reach a decision to go ahead with the launch in March of that year.

NASA had changed its culture so that people felt free to delay a flight because of technical concerns, putting flight safety ahead of schedule and productivity. To reinforce the importance of safety, the astronauts scheduled for the Discovery flight took part in the decision making.

Bill Gerstenmaier, head of space operations, who facilitated the three-session meeting, noted afterward: "I worked with all the astronauts very closely … their kids went to school with my kids, and here they are in the very room where we are discussing their safety." He kept the gatherings open to discussion and debate while focusing to find a solution that fit project constraints.

"The leader's approach and style in managing this entire process is fundamental," the authors note. "Decision-making processes are often subverted by a leader who pays lip service to consultation, going through the motions of openness while pushing the group toward the choice he's already made. Similarly, some attempts to create a decision-making process fail because they go to the opposite extreme – encouraging endless discussion and lowest-common-denominator consensus building."

The NASA story illustrates a key point the authors highlight as crucial for sound judgment calls: Decision-making is a participative, problem-solving process carried out in a disciplined, structured way.

This process includes framing the problem; pursuing solutions through steps that progressively refine the problem; engaging diverse opinions; using fact-based analysis to weigh risks and benefits and to generate test hypotheses; and pursuing all appropriate options through continuous deliberation and learning.

Good judgment, the authors note, involves reaching beyond the executive group and seeking multiple points of view – including contrarian ones.

The authors found that leaders establish the context for sound judgment, often by working to change the culture of the organization so that the processes and mindset necessary for proper decision making are in place.

Judgment Calls is driven by the 12 stories, each of which ends with reflections on how the organization successfully made the decision. This doesn't lead to an step-by-step process for you to follow, but it does offer ideas for judgment calls at your own workplace.



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Special to The Globe and Mail