Innovation

Making decisions at SXSW

March 27, 2017

Stefanie Norvaisas and I recently returned from an amazing trip to South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, where we had the opportunity to host a workshop on Designing Decisions.

As we shared with the workshop attendees, we believe it’s a critical part of all our jobs to facilitate and drive decision making. Yet this simple statement glosses over the fact that the mechanics of decision making are complex and sensitive to emotional and contextual influence. It also ignores the fact that most of us were never given the tools or the understanding needed to design a good decision-making experience.

The work we do as design consultants is marked by urgency, uncertainty and high risk. We are often asking people to make choices based on things for which they have no reference; we are in the business of innovation after all. During our careers, we have become frustrated after working so hard to get to a milestone meeting and then struggling to make a decision. We have shepherded a client through a tough decision, only to have it rejected by the larger organization. We realized we must be “doing it wrong” and turned to the large body of research on decision making. We’ve summarized our learnings and our experience in this workshop to help ourselves and others design a decision-making process to control for biases and a decision-making experience to improve commitment.

In the workshop, we shared what we’ve learned about the cognitive and social biases that can lead us astray and how to work with or navigate around these biases. We also walked the group through a decision-making process and identified critical failure modes to avoid at every step along the way. We finished with a hands-on exercise that involved dividing the group into small teams. Every team worked on the same challenge using the same decision-making steps, but each team had a different decision-making team structure. We defined four types, based on structures we’ve encountered through working with clients:

Consensus Group: All group members contribute to the making of the decision. Every member has a decision-making role.

Justification Group: All group members contribute to the making of the decision. Every member has a decision-making role. In addition, this group had to justify its decision to an outside individual.

Consulting (or Recommending) Group: The group makes decision recommendations to an outside individual. Every member is an advisor only.

Mixed Group: The group has one and only one decision maker. All other group members are advisors to the decision maker. The decision maker has final say in the decision for the group.

Part of our interest in conducting this workshop is to better understand how these different decision-making team structures affect the decision-making experience, and the level of confidence and satisfaction individuals feel regarding the final decision. This wasn’t a true, controlled experiment, but if it were, the decision-making team structures would be our independent variables, and each individual’s reported confidence and satisfaction levels would be our dependent variables. (This was not a controlled experiment! So the results are suggestive or directional at best.)

The $25,000 Challenge (no actual money was at risk)

Imagine that you are part of a small startup. Your company has been given $25,000 and the opportunity to make more money (or lose it) by investing the entire amount in one of the following stocks for the duration of one week: Alphabet (Google) – GOOG, Facebook – FB, or Snap (Snapchat) – SNAP.

Most of us were never given the tools or the understanding needed to design a good decision-making experience

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