Decision Making Blog #3: The black hole of the status quo

The third in a series of blogs on decision making by the Midlands Decision Support Network

Fraser Battye, the Strategy Unit

Learning is one of the joys of teaching. And I’ve learnt a lot while helping people develop their decision making skills.

Some of these lessons have been encouraging. Inspiring even. It has then been a privilege to share them through the Decision Support Network’s education and training programme 

But some of the things I’ve learnt belong on the negative side of the ledger. I’ve heard about constraints on decision making that are serious enough to require broader, more systemic change.

One common theme here is the power of the status quo. In some ways this power is so great it’s remarkable that anything gets decided. The main issue here is the massive asymmetry between ‘deciding something’ and – quietly, invisibly – ‘deciding to not decide’.

Deciding is risky. Choices can have large, obvious downsides. Sometimes they are accompanied by small, ambiguous upsides. This is especially the case when selecting from unappealing options – an all too common scenario for health and care services.

Conversely, deciding to not decide can be very attractive. It has a clear upside: no-one is ‘on the hook’ for a choice they have made. And the downside is almost invisible: few see what hasn’t been done. This is seductive. The status quo acts like a black hole, sucking decision making energy towards its edge.

The problems are clear when looking at individual incentives. Public servants stare downsides in the face, while upsides remain out of sight. They are held accountable for failure, yet are rarely rewarded – in reputation, admiration, remuneration or otherwise – for success.

It’s ok to miss the boat, but not to rock it.

Individual incentives are also mirrored in organisational pressures. Regulation and performance management are a significant factor here. They tend towards a focus on managing the status quo and attempting to avoid crisis. There is then little incentive to engage in bold, strategic decision making. In itself, this is a recipe for crisis.

Are there any solutions? Or at least some means of resisting the status quo’s gravitational pull?

Here I’m hopeful – partly because we can draw on solid lessons from the literature.

One approach would be to reframe the way we think about judging decision quality. Currently, this is judged on results: someone makes a decision; it incurs costs and doesn’t achieve desired outcomes; the decision is therefore seen as poor quality; the decision maker is held to account; and incentives to avoid making decisions are further reinforced.

Yet this runs counter to what we know about decision quality. One of the main messages in the literature is that decision quality should be judged on process, not results. This is especially so for complex and uncertain decisions: exactly the kind of situation where senior leaders need latitude.

So maybe judging decision quality by process offers a partial way out of the black hole. It would retain accountability – allowing people to assess a decision at the time, rather than waiting for results. It would free decision makers from perpetual second-guessing. And it would increase the odds of better outcomes.