Harvard Business Review on Making Smart Decisions: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: September 2nd, 2011 by bobmorris

Harvard Business Review on Making Smart Decisions
Various Contributors
Harvard Business Review Press (2011)

How best practices and expert advice can help you and your associates make smarter decisions

In their classic book, Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls, Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis assert that what really matters “is not how many calls a leader gets right, or even what percentage of calls a leader gets right. Rather it is important how many of the important ones he or she gets right.” They go on to suggest that effective leaders “not only make better calls, but they are able to discern the really important ones and get a higher percentage of them right. They are better at a whole process that runs from seeing the need for a call, to framing issues, to figuring out what is critical, to mobilizing and energizing the troops.”

Those who aspire to “discern the really important [decisions] and get a higher percentage of them right” will find the material in this HBR book invaluable. It is one of the volumes in a series of anthologies of articles that first appeared in Harvard Business Review. Authors of the ten articles focus on one or more components of a process by which to make bold decisions to challenge the status quo, support decisions with sufficient and compelling verification, avoid choices that justify previous bad decisions, evaluate risks and benefits with equal rigor, check for illogical reasoning (e.g. faulty causal relationships), test decisions with reliable experiments, foster and address principled dissent and constructive criticism, avoid or eliminate indecisiveness with clear accountability, and finally, expose unconscious or camouflaged prejudices and biases.

Having read all of the articles when they were published individually, I can personally attest to the brilliance of their authors’ (or co-authors’) insights and the eloquence with which they are expressed. Two substantial value-added benefits should also be noted: If all of the articles were purchased separately as reprints, the total cost would be at least $60-75; they are now conveniently bound in a single volume for a fraction of that cost.

I now provide two brief excerpts that are indicative of the high quality of all ten articles:

In “Conquering a Culture of Indecision,” Ram Charan explains how and why achieving that change “is a matter of leadership. It’s a matter of asking hard questions: How robust and effective are our operating mechanisms? How well are they linked? Do they have the right people and the right frequency? Do they have a rhythm and operate consistently? Is follow-through built in? Are rewards and sanctions linked to the outcomes of the decisive dialogue? Most important, how productive is the dialogue marked by openness, candor, informality and closure?”

For those who seek wider and deeper coverage of this subject, I highly recommend the aforementioned Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls as well as Charan’s Know-How: The 8 Skills That Separate People Who Perform from Those Who Don’t and Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, co-authored with Larry Bossidy.

In “Evidence-Based Management,” Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton propose six specific strategies for producing, evaluating, selling, and applying business knowledge:

1. Stop treating old ideas as if they were brand new.
2. Be suspicious of “breakthrough” ideas and studies.
3. Celebrate and develop collective brilliance.
4. Emphasize drawbacks as well as virtues.
5. Use success (and failure) stories to illustrate sound practices, but nit in place of valid research method.
6. Adopt a neutral stance toward ideologies and theories.

To learn a great deal more about the power of evidence-based management, I suggest that you read two books by Pfeffer and Sutton, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management and The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action.

Other articles in this anthology I especially enjoyed include “The Hidden Traps of Decision Making” (John S. Hammond, Ralph L. Keeney, and Howard Raiffa), “Make Better Decisions” (Thomas H. Davenport), and “Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions” (Andrew Campbell, Jo Whitehead, and Sydney Finkelstein, author of Why Smart Executives Fail: And What You Can Learn from Their Mistakes).


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