Critical Decision Making in Disruptive Times

Critical Decision Making in Disruptive Times

How will the emerging Coronavirus or Brexit really affect your business and how should you make critical decisions in times of chaos or disruption, when the sands of certainty are constantly shifting beneath your feet?

Survival Lessons

At 8.23 am on Sunday, May 18th 1980 the Mount St Helens volcano in Portland Oregon erupted with the destructive force of 26.5 megatons of TNT, a force 500 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Commenting on the eruption US psychologist Al Siebert and author of “The Survivor Personality” found that despite many warning signs that a devastating blast would occur, people continued to ignore the danger.

He asked: 

  • With so many warnings, why did so many people die?
  • What are the important lessons to be learned?

His conclusions were: 

  1. Most experts are not as expert as we hope they are 
  1. When warnings are issued, many people dismiss the threat if it has never happened before 
  1. Even when people know that disaster might occur, they seldom make plans for dealing with it if it does 

How can we apply those lessons today? 

Disruptive Times 

HSBC has recently announced 35,000 job cuts worldwide following a profit loss of 53% amid a crisis reputed to be related to the US-China trade war, Brexit and Corona virus 

The Corona virus is already having a significant impact on many businesses and individuals with restrictions on travel and trade as international business meetings are being cancelled and supply chains for some industries affected. A rapid increase in the number of infected people may create more severe challenges. 

Do organisations have the ability to make business-critical decisions in disruptive times? 


Steps to Effective Decision-Making 

As a commercial mediator and board chair, I frequently facilitate meetings where people have to make tough decisions whilst holding conflicting positions, perspective and values. How then do we manage to reach a consensus on the way forward? 

  1. Define the Key Issues
  2. Recognise Underlying Needs and Interests
  3. Prioritize – Decide Who/What Matters Most
  4. Agree Decision-Making Criteria 

Define The Key Issues

It’s important to be clear exactly what the dialogue and decision ought to be about. Is the issue to be decided whether and in what circumstances staff should be traveling abroad? Or as in the case of HSBC, do we need to cut jobs in the face of uncertainty?


Recognise Underlying Needs and Interests 

Then it’s vital to acknowledge that various stakeholders may have an interest in the decision and it’s impact whether they are shareholders, customers, suppliers or employees etc. Recognising that each group will have their own underlying needs, interests and concerns and that very often these will differ significantly adding to the complexity.


Prioritize – Decide Who/What Matters Most 

Given all of the above, it becomes necessary to prioritise and to decide who or what matters most. Is it protecting profits or staff safety or reputation or perhaps all three?


Agree Decision-Making Criteria 

This is the one factor that most organisations fall short on! On what basis are we to make this decision? Unless those charged with making critical decisions are using the same agreed criteria they risk falling into the trap of making up their own, which may be based on personal bias or interest or many other factors.


More Human 

In his book “More Human” Steve Hilton reminds us that instead of putting economics at the heart of corporate and government decisions, leaders should look more widely at the long-term human consequences, engaging and empathizing with those who may be impacted.

Roger Fisher, co-author of “Getting To Yes” was discussing the importance of reaching a “wise decision”, especially in terms of nuclear arms. He suggested implanting the nuclear launch codes in a volunteer. If the President of the United States wanted to activate nuclear weapons, he would have to kill the volunteer to retrieve the codes. Would having to look another human being in the eye and kill him first distort the President’s judgment or would it simply remind him of the human consequences of his decision? (Roger Fisher, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 1981)

All of us make decisions on a daily basis. What food to eat, who to meet with, travel arrangements and such like. Most of these are routine matters and so we do not think much about the decision-making process itself or indeed the outcome of those decisions, though sometimes they lead to frustration and “what if” reflections. 

Today, more than ever before, we live and work in an age of uncertainty where disruption and chaos are likely to present challenges to business thinking and decision making. 

Recognising the potential impact of all our decisions and understanding when these may be critical to human as well as business survival is an important starting point.

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