Decision Making Blog #8: Infinity-shaped debate

Number 8 in our series of blogs on decision making by the Midlands Decision Support Network

Fraser Battye, the Strategy Unit

I’m argumentative. Not in the interpersonal sense – at least I hope not – but in the sense of having an eyebrow that cannot stay put while listening to people’s claims and propositions. It inches its way up my forehead, ruining my poker face and revealing my misgivings.

And, more generally, I think debate is undervalued*. In our society and in health and care services, I don’t see enough reasoned argument; enough exploration of difference and unspoken assumption; or enough understanding that values sometimes clash without ‘the other side’ being evil. Instead, I see too much emphasis on harmony – and too many careers based on quietly towing a line and trying to rise without trace.

Difference adds and harmony subtracts. High quality decisions rely upon the creativity sparked by diverse perspectives, values and options. Disagreement can be clarifying, allowing us to spot and attend to weaknesses in our reasoning and in our evidence. Decision quality is a function of our ability to open up, navigate and draw from divergence – not by seeking its opposite.

Yet, just because something it good, it doesn’t mean more of it is always better. While I see plenty of room for dissent, I also know it can be destructive. Some people just don’t know when to let go – and we’ve all felt irritation as a settled decision is invited back into the room for another airing. Disagreement, yes. Just not in all times and not in all places.

When then? When does disagreement add to the decision making process, and when does it detract? When should decision making teams open up debate, and when should they close it down?

Perhaps paradoxically, given that no-one wants debates to run forever, one answer is infinity shaped**. This entrancing ‘number 8 on its side’ provides a useful guide to the questions above. It suggests that debate is most valuable when managed as two loops within the decision making process.

The first loop is when defining the decision and generating options. Here, decision makers benefit from opening up multiple perspectives. How do different people and groups see and experience the problem? What would they do about it? What do different sources of data and evidence say? How have analogous problems been addressed elsewhere?

But this cannot go on forever. At some point, we must settle on what the problem is, and which options are on the table to address it. That is where the first loop closes.

The second loop then opens. Which option to choose? Again, multiple perspectives are needed – not only to decide on the option to pursue, but also on how to refine (and perhaps combine) options. The views of people likely to be charged with implementing options are especially valuable here: what do they see? Where can they see practical problems in the options being considered? How can we head these problems off at the design stage?

The process then reaches a critical juncture when debate needs to close: when an option has been selected. This can be one of the most destructive times to reopen discussion, preventing things from moving on through the use of endless second-guessing and question raising. So the second loop closes. The decision has been made. Debate over.

There are methods and techniques to put infinity-shaped debate into practice. In our ‘Decision Quality for Leaders’ programme, we draw on the ‘Decision Dialogue Process’. Designed for strategic decisions, this approach is detailed in this Harvard Business Review article – but its essence is a structured sequence of opening up and closing down debate at critical points within the decision at hand.

Infinity-shaped debate can be adopted and adapted for many decision types: big and small, formal and informal, strategic and every day. It offers a way out of interminable discussion, bringing things to conclusion using method rather than relying on exhaustion. And while it offers no guarantee that eyebrow raises will be welcomed, it does increase the odds that they will be usefully timed.

 

* I’m not making the case for pyrotechnic debate. I’m arguing for enquiry over advocacy, for light over heat, and for the kind of careful, open reasoning that can be done at a professional volume.

** I’ve seen the infinity symbol recur a few times in policy / service discussions. Most powerfully for me in Hilary Cottam’s wonderful book ‘Radical Help’, where she uses the shape to describe a process for understanding problems and generating solutions. The infinity symbol also occurs in double-loop learning / sense-making and strategy (e.g. here and here). It is also the basis of the Design Council’s famous ‘Double Diamond’.