Humble Decision Making
“Humble Decision Making.” Harvard Business Review on Decision Making, (Harvard Business School Press: Boston, MA, 2001), 45-57.
13 Pages Posted: 5 Oct 2012
Date Written: 2001
Old-fashioned decision making doesn't meet the needs of a world with too much information and too little time. So-called rational decision making, once the ideal, requires comprehensive knowledge of every facet of a problem, which is clearly impossible today. One of the most recent decision-making models, incrementalism, despairs of knowledge and instead concentrates on the smallest possible units of change-without any sense of grand design.
Now a new model is evolving. It lets us proceed with partial information. It helps us adapt to new information as it becomes available. It also helps us achieve broad goals and purposes. This new model is actually an old model, used by doctors for centuries and by many managers. It's called mixed scanning or adaptive (or humble) decision making, and it involves two sets of judgments: broad, basic choices about an organization's goals and policies and small, experimental decisions based on indepth examination of a focused subset of facts and choices.
Physicians never commit all their resources and prestige to their first diagnosis. Knowing where they want to go, they use focused trial and error to get there: try medicine x for y number of days, and if that doesn't work, try medicine z. Managers can use this technique to increase the flexibility and adaptability of their decisions. In addition, they can put decisions off, stagger them, or break them into separate parts, and they can also maintain strategic reserves that will allow them to take advantage of sudden opportunities and to cover unexpected costs.
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