Business Case Studies, Executive Interviews, Colin Carnall on Decision Making

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Executive Interviews: Interview with Colin Carnall on Decision Making
May 2008 - By Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary


Colin Carnall
Director of Executive Programs at Warwick Business School, The University of Warwick, Coventry, UK


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  • What, according to you, are the similarities and dissimilarities between individual, managerial, executive, societal and governmental decisions.
    The obvious answer here is probably the best i.e., the difference relates to the scope and impact. Methodologically, here is a similarity save that others will be involved once you are outside the realm of individual decision. Managerial and executive decisions are both impacted by legal issues and the need to serve stakeholders, whilst for the societal and governmental decisions, one needs to add a long-term perspective.

    However, note that the political perspectives may often force a shortening of time horizons, and also how these various levels are connected in practice.

  • Are there any tools, mathematical models, decision trees, etc., that the students are taught? Was there a danger of these tools being mistaken as the decisions themselves?
    At Warwick, the students are taught models and techniques including the scenario analysis and simulation techniques. The danger you refer to is real enough but not the most important. More important is the issue of the mind set what might be characterized as a trained incapacity not to see that decisions are needed.

  • is decision making a science or an art? If it is believed to be a science, can its principles be applied universally? If it is an art, how can someone be trained to be an effective decision maker?
    Decision making is both an art and a science. The balance is determined by the nature of the problem….in terms of complexity and the level of certainty. To the extent that art is involved of course you can train people. Are we really arguing that artists are not trained? The real point here is to note that training goes only so far.

  • To trust the employees and allow them to make decisions, particularly without all the pieces to the puzzle is anathema in business today. What is the appropriateness of participatory decision making and unilateral decision making? In what kind of industries or circumstances, do you think each of these approaches serve a better purpose?
    Again the question is misleading and based on a false premise. But it suffices to note that complex and uncertain problems are better resolved via distributive leadership.

  • Would fostering dissent (a constructive dissent) lead to better decision making? Does conflict lead to better decisions? Or would it be an unqualified hindrance to decision making?
    Yes, particularly for the class of decisions referred to in the previous question.

  • Who according to you are the best decision makers ever in the corporate history? What traits did they exhibit?
    It is not really possible to give a simple answer here. As someone once said all careers end in failure. However, Warren Buffet is one name to think about as would be Nelson Mandela.

  • What is the role of business schools in preparing better decision makers? What specific steps do you suggest for business schools in terms of designing their curricula and delivering focused courses to prepare better decision makers?
    The role of business schools is to develop people with leadership potential.

  • How do you think that the leader's personal ethics, emotional quotient and value system play a role in effective decisionmaking?
    They are all part of the person in a leadership role. These attributes most importantly play on the issue of authenticity. Effective strategic leadership comprises solutions for more complex puzzles. With incomplete knowledge leaders must learn how to analyze the data on hand. The real question we need to address is often the real issue. Leaders must hold back from merely offering the solutions of the past. Yet, we rush to implement these solutions sometimes because we find that proper formulation of the question is hard requiring disciplined effort and time. Yet, our people want an answer. To many, this is what leadership is all about finding instant answers to our problems rather than the inevitable delay associated with working through the problems or even worse, the public recognition that at any point of time some problems may not be solved. If a company faces problems you often find that the trade unions and politicians demand overnight announcements in order to remove any uncertainty for employees and the others. Our culture demands answers, for both political and corporate leaders.

    But getting answers requires that we understand the question, explore options and so on. This takes time. In reality, strategic leadership is often about the 'long haul', and delayed gratification. The work of the behaviorally focused trainers focuses on more immediate impact. This is why we are so preoccupied with these approaches. They can offer immediate gains and this is important. But for more senior leaders, leadership development work needs to look at the hard choices to be made.

    Martin Gilbert has just published a book looking at Churchill's wartime leadership under the title Continue to Pester Nag and Bite. One of Churchill's maxims of leadership in war was 'Improvise and Dare'. And you cannot understand his leadership without looking at the series of speeches through which he articulated his vision of ultimate victory. However, it is more interesting to look at his methodology of work. Famous for his 'Action this Day' instructions, the other important point may be the extent to which he placed himself in command of the detail of Britain's war effort so that he could challenge his colleagues. Amongst the data provided to him regularly included monthly, weekly or even daily reports on production, technical developments, manpower, training, tank and aircraft strengths and so on. Additionally, he saw papers on all matters related to the war policy, all foreign office and service telegrams, i.e., copies of all messages between the three service ministries and all the commandersin- chief in the field. Once he possessed this information, he was in a position to 'Pester, Nag and Bite'.

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