Something I realized early in my career is that all work-related decisions were made with the goal of managing some form of risk – whether it be operational, HR, environmental, it doesn’t matter. People make decisions to support the management of risks. The magnitude of decisions will vary (typically they are more important the more senior the role of the decision maker), but the basic decision-making contract remains the same: an organization provides information to the decision-maker, a decision is made and the individual and organization can learn based on the outcome of that decision.
I often think of the Jeremy Irons character in Margin Call who reminds his executive team of the ‘three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter or cheat’. He then discounts one of the ways by saying, ‘I don’t cheat’. What the scene depicted was an executive team being able to see the complete picture in front of them (in the case of Margin Call, it was the start of the financial crisis) prior to making a decision. One of the analysts in the firm, Peter Sullivan, played by Zachary Quinto, discovered information passed on to him by a departing colleague that was vital to triggering the run of decisions the firm made so, in the words of Irons’ character, ‘we may survive’. The difference between this fictitious firm and its peers was that it was able to visualize the information at hand and thus had a more complete picture of the events of the day allowing them to act.
Differentiating oneself from your peers is a natural pursuit of for-profit organizations. How can they manage information that gives them a competitive advantage? How can they complete the picture so they can ‘be first’? Many leaders will know that organizations cannot wait for complete information in order to make a decision. If that were the case, they would lose out on opportunities or impair their ability to achieve their mission. Indeed, many leaders will lament the pace at which organizations make decisions (whether they are right or wrong is another topic altogether). The process (and by extension time) of decision-making is a decision not to act. Not acting means not being ‘first’.
If it is understood that information required to make decisions will never be complete for the reasons above, what is the trigger point for making decisions? How do organizations know that they have sufficient inputs to make an informed decision with the best interests of stakeholders in mind? Not having complete information is one thing, not being able to see the picture of the information an organization has is entirely different. In the digital age, a lack of data is rarely the challenge. The bottle neck is how the data is analyzed and presented to decisions-makers. In short, it is the lack of organizational capability to make ‘the complete picture’ available for decision-makers at scale that holds organizations back.
In the Margin Call example, the decision being considered is of existential importance. The vast majority of organizations and decision-makers within will not have the future of their employer in the balance for all decisions. However, when we consider the hundreds or thousands of mission/asset/people-critical decisions that are made up and down organizations on a daily basis, curating decision-making environments that are high quality, repeatable and sustainable is hugely important. This is the value of information presentation. Consider the example of two different boarding passes (courtesy of Paradigm Human Performance Ltd.) below:
Obviously, the boarding pass on the right is much more sympathetic to travelers than the one on the left. Information visualization has been used to excellent effect. There is no additional information on the right than the left, but it has been presented in such a way that supports all of the decisions a traveler will face: gate number, boarding time, seat and so forth. The standard boarding pass requires the traveler to ‘work’ for that information. Both boarding passes have complete information, but the one on the right has a much more complete picture. Organizations need to start compartmentalizing information in ‘boarding pass’ volumes to support the countless mission/asset/people-critical decisions people across the organization will make on a daily basis.
The 20th century business model was one of a production mindset. How many widgets were produced? At what cost? By how many people? Static reports satisfied these information requirements. The 21st century business model will be a consumption mindset. There will be far more dynamic variables that will inform the day-to-day decisions than in the past.
While the decision-making contract has largely remained in place, the context of decision-making has evolved. No one wants to be making decisions in the 21st century with 20th century technology, systems and interfaces. In the current times where decisions are based on increasingly complex, disparate and non-linear information, the capability to visualize the information on hand is vital. That information must be of high quality, reliable and valid for the decisions that will be made across the organization. If we only focus on supporting the existential decisions made at the very top, we will lose and erode value when making the thousands of decisions below. Scaling the capacity to present relevant, timely and context rich information to decision-makers will be the hallmark of leading organizations in the 21st century.