“Business decision-making has changed more in the past six months than in the previous sixty years,” said Eugene Roytburg, Ph.D., decision science expert and Managing Director at Fractal Analytics, in our recent conversation. “The COVID-19 crisis forced every executive to make rapid decisions with previously unimaginable impacts, while everyone switched to online remote work at the same time. It’s astonishing.”
Recent statistics support his insight. A McKinsey study found that 82 percent of executives said they make decisions faster now, and half say much faster. Simultaneously, the number of meetings required to make decisions plummeted — major business decisions are now half as likely to need six or more meetings. And all this is happening with almost all collaboration now mediated by technology.
But Dr. Roytburg’s more significant insight is about what’s missing from this transformation. “Our previous research found that no executives had a clear memory of how many and what decisions they made in the past year, and only 14% had a vague recollection. If you project that forward, that means we are missing out on an incredible opportunity for organizational learning. How can our companies learn from our past decisions to make our next ones better? It’s a critical theme for business in the post-COVID-19 world.”
Creating A New Normal
His vision depends on two ideas. First, companies need to capture the basics of their decisions, what he calls “the what, when, who, how and how well.” Second, and this is his game-changing perspective: companies need to apply analytics and machine learning to learn from the results.
“How do ten ‘fast but wrong’ decisions stack up against two ‘slow but right’ decisions?” Dr. Roytburg asked. “Even with the right data, it’s a tough question. With the data companies have today, it’s impossible. But what would we do if we learned that decision speed versus quality is a false tradeoff, and instead we can have both at the same time?”
That is the crux of his perspective: What matters most is that our companies learn from decisions so we can improve the results of our decision making over time. If we can do this, he believes we can take the best from this crisis and create a new normal for decision-making that is faster, better and more productive. Dr. Roytburg also sees a positive scaling effect: the more decisions a company makes, the more opportunity to learn and improve.
Five Questions To Make It Real
These five questions bring his ideas to life and help apply them to practical day-to-day leadership challenges:
- How do we know if a decision is right at the time we make it? Few people think they make bad decisions, so just asking ourselves how we’re doing won’t work. Dr. Roytburg believes that companies must be able to look back at similar past decisions to score our current efforts and suggest how we can improve our next decisions.
- How will we know if today’s decisions drive the results we expect? My research has found that few companies keep track of their decisions, but Dr. Roytburg goes beyond simple tracking. He envisions executives tracking current business results back to the past decisions we’ve made, like x-ray vision into how we implemented our business strategy. Which fateful decision led us astray? Which contributed most to our success?
- Is our decision process consistent? Imagine if we could inspect decision-making and hold our organization accountable in the same way we review sales productivity, marketing effectiveness and other operational metrics. What is the best mix of decisions based on intuition and experience versus data and analytics? Where are decisions over-performing and where are they falling short? What was the most important driver of decision success?
- Is our decision process fast enough? The COVID-19 crisis has broken through our limiting beliefs about how quickly people in large organizations can make effective decisions. How do organizations retain that speed after the crisis recedes? What if we could see the overall flow of decisions to address bottlenecks and slowdowns as they arise?
- Is our decision process getting better? Dr. Roytburg sees this as the essential outcome of learning from our decisions. Are we making the right changes now to improve decision quality and success in the future? Are we capturing institutional memory of our decisions so managers and executives can build on each other’s experiences?
Decision Optimism For The Post-Crisis World
I believe the adage that no crisis should go to waste, and Dr. Roytburg’s ideas have more than a kernel of truth in them. “Post-COVID-19, the trends of decentralized decision-making and empowered agile teams will continue,” he said. “If we can also capture, learn and disseminate the best decision-making practices across the organization, we will transform the most important business process there is.”
It’s an optimistic vision for the future of work. Just as previous digital revolutions did for other areas of business operations, Dr. Roytburg’s vision suggests that we don’t have to force a trade-off between speed and quality when making decisions in this new world, and we don’t have to rely only on intuition and good luck for outsized success. By learning from our past decisions, we can deliberately improve our companies’ decision-making performance and also adjust quicker when fate has its say or take advantage when inspiration strikes.
I’d love to hear from you if your company has adopted a similar learning approach to decision-making or if you know of other people like Dr. Roytburg with decision-related ideas that are worthy of being shared. It’s time to start imagining the future again!