Judgment Calls: A book review by Bob Morris

Judgment Calls: Twelve Stories of Big Decisions and the Teams That Got Them Right
Thomas H. Davenport and Brook Manville
Harvard Business Review Press (2012)

How and why to take full and systematic advantage of technology and analytics to create deeper and more sustainable judgment

To introduce this review, I call upon Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” How to make the best decisions? Enter Thomas Davenport and Brooke Manville. In their book, Judgment Calls, they explain how and why decisions made by a Great Organization tend to be much better than those made by a Great Leader. Why? While conducting rigorous and extensive research over a period of many years, they discovered – as Laurence Prusak notes in the Foreword — “that no one was looking into the workings of what we term [begin italics] organizational judgment [end italics] – the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.”

The mistake to which Drucker refers is much less likely to occur when organizational judgment is centrally involved in a decision-making process. My own opinion is that this process resembles a crucible of intensive scrutiny by several well-qualified persons. Moreover, the eventual decision is the result of what Roger Martin characterizes, in The Opposable Mind, as “integrative thinking.” That is, each of those involved has “the predisposition and the capacity to hold two [or more] diametrically opposed ideas” in mind and then “without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other,” helps to “produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea.”

Organizational judgment must not only be discerned but also managed. And precautions should be taken to ensure, as Prusak notes, “that the courses of action taken by organizations are more grounded in reality and a shared sense of what is right.” In recent years, the rapid emergence and development of social media enable organizations to become even more grounded in what has become an expanded reality. Only through an open and inclusive collaborative process can the use of social media enable any organization to tap the collective genius of its stakeholder constituencies.

In this brilliant volume, Davenport and Manville rigorously examine “12 stories of big decisions and the teams that get them right.” However different the nature and extent of the circumstances as well as of implications and potential consequences of the given decision may be, all twelve followed essentially the same process, one that takes into full account four separate but related trends:

o The recognition that “none of us is as smart as all of us”
o Tapping not only the so-called wisdom of the crowd but also its leadership
o The use of data and analytics to support – sometimes even make – decisions
o Information technology that enables and then supports better decisions

Shrewdly, Davenport and Manville focus on an exceptionally diverse group and the major decisions to be made. They include NASA STS-119 “Should we launch?”), McKinsey & Company (“Should we recruit from a different pool of talent?”), Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (“How can we improve student performance?”), Ancient Athenians (How can we defend against a life-or-death invasion?”), and the (DeWitt and Lila) Wallace Foundation (“How can we focus a strategy for more mission impact?”). These mini-case studies achieve two critically important objectives. First, they help the reader to understand how each of the major decisions was made? Also, they help the reader to understand what lessons can be learned from the process by which the decisions were made.

No organization ever has too many great men and great women. Indeed, few have any. However, I agree with Davenport and Manville that all organizations can establish and then constantly improve a collaborate process by which organizational judgment produces a much higher percentage of appropriate decisions. This does not require a Great Leader. Rather, it requires development of collective leadership (i.e. results-driven initiative) at all levels and in all areas. It also requires constant communication, cooperation, and (especially) collaboration. These are among the defining characteristics of a Great Organization.

With their book, Tom Davenport and Brook Manville will help you and your colleagues to build one.

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