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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    Simple contexts, are characterized by stability and clear cause-and-effect relationships that are easily discernible by everyone. Often, the right answer is self-evident and undisputed. In this realm of 'Known Knowns', decisions are unquestioned because all parties share an understanding.

    Complicated contexts, unlike simple ones may contain multiple right answers, and though there is a clear relationship between cause and effect, not everyone can see it. This is the realm of 'Known Unknowns'. While leaders in a simple context must sense, categorize and respond to a situation, those in a complicated context must sense, analyze, and respond.

    Complex context, has at least one right answer. In a complex context, however, right answers can't be ferreted out. This is the realm of 'Unknown Unknowns', and it is the domain to which much of contemporary business has shifted.

    The Chaotic context, searching for right answers would be pointless: The relationships between cause and effect are impossible to determine because they shift constantly and no manageable patterns exist only turbulence. This is the realm of unknowables.

  • How should these four contexts' purport be interpreted for governmental and non-governmental leaders? What do these contexts mean for them? What relevance do these contexts have for them?
    There is no difference in the application of the theory, but there is a difference in the urgency. The main challenge is to provide more services to an increasingly demanding population with less resource. Managing a complex environment as if it was simple or complicated means that we waste money; understanding that something is complex and using the correct experimental approach reduces the cost and increases the range of viable options which will emerge.

  • What is the role of business schools in preparing better decisionmakers? What specific steps do you suggest for business schools in terms of designing their curricula?
    Far too much of their work assumes that all systems are complicated. Case studies should be limited in their use. Business schools need to bring in assets from natural sciences and the humanities to add value to their teaching. They need to reduce the amount to which they teach conventional approaches, increase the range of novel ideas. At the moment they are locked into a 19th century concept of science and need radical reform.

  • There's enough literature on decision-making styles and traits of effective decision-makers. But, what according to you are the prerequisites for effective decision-making?
    'Styles and traits' is the wrong way to think about decision-making. Different styles work in different spaces, context can create traits. The question assumes a traditional causal model. It is the wrong question. As to prerequisites then the most important thing is to be aware of different contexts (see the Cynefin framework) and know when to make decisive decisions, and when to stand above the situation and allow systems to evolve.

  • How do you think the leader's personal ethics and value systemplay a role in effective decision-making?
    Major lack of moral integrity leads to bad leadership. When things become difficult having a clear value systemto fall back on is key.

Note: The answers with were excerpted and reprinted with the permission of Harvard Business Review from "A Leaderís Framework for Decision- Making" by David J Snowden and Mary E Boone, November 2007.

Copyright © 2007 by HBS Publishing; All Rights Reserved.

1. Decision Making Case Study
2. ICMR Case Collection
3. Case Study Volumes


The Interview was conducted by Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary, Consulting Editor, Effective Executive and Dean, IBSCDC, Hyderabad.

This Interview was originally published in Effective Executive, IUP, May 2008.

Copyright © May 2008, IBSCDC No part of this publication may be copied, reproduced or distributed, stored in a retrieval system, used in a spreadsheet, or transmitted in any form or medium electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without the permission of IBSCDC.

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