A Decision-Making Master Class at #TSAConf2016
Professor Michael Roberto Shares His A+ Game with TechServe Alliance
Professor and author Michael Roberto of Bryant University
began his keynote address to the 2016 TechServe Alliance
Conference by calling upon the audience to consider an
important decision-making question: Are you capturing the
wisdom of the crowd? Sharing the data-proven example that
an audience will collectively get the right answer to a quiz
question 91% of the time, Roberto was challenging the
leaders, managers, business owners, rising stars, and
contributors of all kinds in the ballroom to consider whether
or not they accept input and welcome ideas as they make
If there is powerful wisdom in groups, how
are businesses making the most of their most
important group (employees) to improve
decision making? Are they missing
opportunities to share knowledge, challenge
norms, and welcome divergent thinking that
could inform high-impact choices? Here are
some of the many insights Roberto provided in his talk, “The Art of Critical
Decision Making,” along with tips on what a business can do better to leverage
the knowledge and experience of the many in order to make better business
According to Roberto, there are five common decision-making traps businesses
and their leaders often fall into:
- The Sunk Cost Trap - Every business will at one time or another put time,
money, and resources into an investment that they will never get back.
Perhaps it was an employee, IT system, or new service line that didn’t work
out. The decision-making problem doesn’t lie in the initial risk that was
taken, it’s that business leaders often decide to keep investing in the same
failed project. They “escalate their course of action” and double down
rather than walking away. Why? Because it is so hard to accept when
something doesn’t work out, making it an expensive trap in which many
businesses get caught.
- Confirmation Bias - People often look to data not to find new information
but to confirm what they
already believe. To
highlight this point,
Roberto pointed out the
reasons why people
choose to watch Fox News
or read the New York
Times. They want to see
their views confirmed. In
bias can keep an
organization from seeing new perspectives, opportunities, and challenges.
The question to ask is this: Are you looking to get true information or input,
or are you just asking to hear what you want to hear? As Roberto pointed
out, “Executives don’t hire yes-men and yes-women, they create them
through the climate and culture.”
- Groupthink - Offering a fascinating video examination of the groupthink
phenomenon, Robert shared this Candid Camera clip on how people can
squash their own reason and logic in favor of the group. When groupthink
occurs in a business, employees choose coherence and unity over analysis
and critical thinking. People choose not to speak up and share diverse
perspectives in order to please the group, which means original ideas and
strategy are censored by the power of the group.
- Downplaying Ambiguous Risk - In many businesses bad news doesn’t rise
to the top. Layers of bureaucracy keep senior leaders from hearing the bad
news, or the culture supports the downplaying of risk. It’s a dangerous
state of affairs when employees are discouraged from pointing out risks or
problems, as businesses like GM, Volkswagen, and Wells Fargo can attest.
- Failure to Share Information - Citing the government’s failure to share key
information ahead of 9/11, Roberto challenged the audience to “forget
your open door policies.” Instead of waiting on people to knock on your
door with issues, problems, and challenges, he encourages managers and
leaders go out there and get them. “Be problem finders,” said Roberto.
“Don’t wait for them to come to you,” as people will not always be great at
bringing information to your attention.
The Path to Better Decisions
While awareness of those five traps is an important way to improve decision
making, Roberto had specific tips on how to avoid them and how to capture
“wisdom of the crowd” within your business.
- Build a Climate of Candor - An important way to tap into the wisdom of the
crowd is by encouraging employees to contribute without consequence.
Roberto told the audience it’s important to make your organization a place
where it is “safe to share” and where employees are encouraged to be
- Decide How to Decide - There are many techniques organizations can
employ in their decision making (get the senior leaders out of the room to
generate more ideas in early phases, suspend rules of protocol, split into
subgroups, use devil’s advocates, etc.) but a business does need to decide
how they are going to proceed. Not every approach will work for every
business culture, so find out what will work and take action.
- Manage Conflict Constructively - Conflict is not a bad thing. In fact,
embracing divergent ideas early on is important. However, Roberto pointed
out that you can use alternative perspectives in positive ways that keep
teams working together and sharing ideas. One example was to ensure that
devil’s advocates are employed to ask questions rather than to provide
critiques. If businesses can keep both civility and candor, points of conflict
can be opportunities to strengthen rather than weaken the business.
While just an hour, this keynote was a true master class in the rights and wrongs
of decision making. TechServe Alliance is grateful to Professor Roberto for his
time, his enthusiasm, his knowledge, and his lessons, and we encourage members
to share how and where his insights impact your business in the year ahead.