Business Case Studies, Executive Interviews, David J Snowden on Decision Making

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Executive Interviews: Interview with David J Snowden on Decision Making
May 2008 - By Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary


David J Snowden
Adjunct Professor of Knowledge Management at the University of Canberra.


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  • Can you tell us about Cognitive Edge? What is the scope of its activities?
    CE really has three purposes. 'Firstly we are creating an open source approach to consultancy. Our methods can be downloaded from the website (subject to a creative commons license) without cost. Secondly, we are experimenting with new approaches to research in social systems. Thirdly, we have developed the Sense Maker software suite, to support that research and the network. Applications include knowledge management, quantitative approaches to what has previously been qualitative research,weak signal detection, strategy and other areas.

  • What is the relationship, if any, between the cognition and decisionmaking?
    Cognitition is decision-making. The way we see the world influences how we act in it.

  • Is decision-making a science or an art? If it is to believed as science, can its principles be applied universally? If it is an art, how can someone be trained to be an effective decision-maker?
    It is a mixture of science and experience and to a degree art.We can produce powerful tools to support decision-makers, but experience remains critical to the more complex issues. Training can help.

  • JimCollins, in an article in Fortune (June 27, 2005) distinguished between bad decisions and wrong decisions. What according to you is the distinction between bad decisions and wrong decisions? What have been the 10 most-important-ever corporate decisions made, according to you?
    This is a classic context free statement. There are various types of decision. For example, I may want to make a series of small contradictory decisions and initiative a set of recoverable actions to see what is possible in a space. If I can know the outcome then the statement is valid. If the outcome is not predictable then we need to think differently. Moving from a fail-safe approach to making the right decision, to a safe-fail experimental approach. In this context, the question of right and wrong is meaningless.

  • How do you describe an effective (good) decision? Who according to you would be the best-ever decisionmakers in corporate history? What traits did they exhibit?
    I consider this question, and the assumptions behind it dangerous. Decisions are contextual and decision makers in one contextmay be good in another bad. There are no universal traits that underpin decision-making. The most one can say is that good leaders are aware of the context and make (or enable) contextual decisions to be made.

  • In your article ('A Leader's Framework for Decision-Making", HBR, November 2007), you have observed that, not all leaders achieve the desired results when they face situations that require a variety of decisions and responses. Why?
    Because in part they have been trained by people who ask questions like the previous one. They don't understand experimentation of safefail decision processes. They also think they have to make all the decisions, when often the decision process can be moved to smaller decisions made by more people which lead to a manageable evolutionary process.

  • What is the traditional approach to leadership and decision-making? Why do you argue for a new perspective (on decision-making) based on complexity science?What is the relationship between complexity science and decision-making? Why is an understanding of complexity so important for better decision-making?
    Because traditional leadership models assume that there is a knowable right answer. Complexity Science shows us a range of systems where there are no right answers, only possibilities so our theory of leadership and decision-making has to change to accommodate this.

    Complexity is more a way of thinking about the world that a new way of working with mathematical models. Over a century ago, Fredrick Winslow Taylor, the father of scientific management, revolutionized leadership. Today, advances in complexity sciences, combined with knowledge from the cognitive sciences, are transforming the field once again, complexity is poised to help the current and future leaders make sense of advanced technology, globalization, intricate markets, cultural change, and much more. In short, the science of complexity can help all of us address the challenges and opportunities we face in a new epoch of human history.

  • What is Cynefin framework? What are its components? Why contexts assume greater importance in your framework?
    Over the past ten years, we have applied the principles of that science to government and a broad range of industries. Working with other contributors, we developed the Cynefin framework, which allows the executives to see things from new viewpoints, assimilate complex concepts, and address real-world problems and opportunities. (Cynefin, pronounced Ku-nev-in, is a Welsh word that signifies the multiple factors in our environment and our experiences that influence us in ways we can never understand.) Using this approach, leaders learn to define the framework with examples from their own organization's history and scenario of its possible future. This enhances communication and helps executives rapidly understand the context in which they are operating.

    The framework sorts the issues facing leaders into five contexts defined by the nature of the relationship between cause and effect. Four of these simple, complicated, complex and chaotic require leaders to diagnose situations and to act in contextually appropriate ways. The fifth disorder applies when it is unclear which of the other four contexts is predominant.

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