Critical questions for better decision making
Johnson Wong tells us how to make better decisions.
In my previous role as a manager, one of the most nerve-wracking parts of my job is to make major decisions on behalf of the department. Some decisions have implications for the lives of administrators, trainers, learners and other stakeholders.
What I found unsettling was how some important decisions were made in a seemingly 'unsystematic' or less thoroughly examined way, even if the decisions were made collectively by a group of people.
Imagine this scenario during a meeting: concern is raised as to whether new product development projects X and Y rollout dates should be before or after the company's internal audit. Someone suggested it should be before the internal audit and gives a reason to support why.
Another person proposes a set of possible dates, and soon a negotiation of which dates and venues are most suitable ensues, with the assumption that the research projects’ dates will be before the audit. There was no discussion over how good the reason is for the decision.
No challenges were raised about the cons of the decision. No alternatives were explored by any members (say, maybe not have the internal audit for now?). Indeed, I would say no deliberation or critical discussion over the decision took place.
Use of critical questions promotes a more thoughtful, deliberate approach to decision-making.
Perhaps you have encountered a similar experience in your workplace or personal life. And maybe you, too, are frustrated by how some important decisions are made uncritically with such little thought. You might be thinking: isn’t there a better approach way to making decisions?
These frustrations led me on my explorative journey to figure out how to help co-workers develop a critical stance towards their work. The aim is for them to become more critical in their thinking, always searching for alternative options and possible errors in a decision.
Douglas Walton, a Canadian academic famous for his work on argumentation (persuading someone of a certain claim or decision through reasoning and evidence) and logical fallacies (why our reasons might be faulty or problematic) provides essential elements for the use of critical questioning.
Combining Walton’s work on practical reasoning, or reasoning that leads to an action or decision on an action, with research findings from collaborative learning and theories about how people learn, the following are four tips for improving the process of decision-making, which increases the chance of making better decisions.
Tip #1: Ask critical questions
- Are there alternative means of achieving goal A, other than taking action B?
- Is B acceptable (or the best) alternative?
- Is it possible for person or organisation P to do B?
- Are there adverse side effects of P bringing about B that ought to be considered?
- Does P have goals other than A, which might have the potential to conflict with P realising A?
Responses to these critical questions and reasons for these responses help us consider if a proposed action is the one we should take.
For example, if we, the marketing team, are tasked to come up with an advertisement plan for a product, after coming up with a plan (B), we can ask: are we looking for any acceptable plan or the best plan? Can we do B? (Question 3) If we are looking for the best course of action, is B the best one? (Question 2) And, what do we mean by the best? This question leads to the next related tip #2.
Tip#2: Define what’s 'acceptable' or 'best.'
Making a decision in a team requires us to articulate the kind of action we are looking for. Do we want an acceptable or the best action? What’s 'acceptable'? What’s 'the best'? Are we looking for the most cost-effective advertisement plan or are we satisfied with any form of advertisement?
It is hard to determine whether we already came up with the best plan if we don’t know what counts as best. Ideally, the criteria for 'acceptable' or 'best' action should be discussed and negotiated by the team members responsible for making the decision.
If these criteria are determined by one person, such as the team leader, the criteria should be clearly defined and clarified with the team members. The suggested list of critical questions is non-exhaustive. They serve as guiding examples rather than questions to be memorised and regurgitated.
Not all the questions must be asked and answered in all situations, nor must they be used in a particular sequence.
Tip #3: Establish norms for asking questions
When encouraging coworkers to ask critical questions during group decision-making, there needs to be some group norms in place. Most importantly, the members must feel safe (i.e. psychologically safe) criticising the ideas, without fearing they will damage collegiality or be labelled as the 'trouble maker'.
Some simple ways include playing 'devil’s advocate' – intentionally take the opposite side to explore cons of a proposed idea or the pros of the opposing idea. Also, ask members to focus on critiquing the ideas put forward, not the person who suggested the idea.
For example, use phrases like 'I think this idea may not work because…' instead of 'You are ridiculous!' Critiques should be made respectfully and targeted at the idea to help improve it; they are not insults of individuals.
Tip #4 Practise! Practise! Practise!
You get better at something only if you practise. The critical questions and criteria for determining the 'acceptable' or 'best' action serve as tools for making expert thinking in decision-making visible.
While asking critical questions and evaluating their responses do not guarantee we make the best decision, use of critical questions promotes a more thoughtful, deliberate approach to decision-making. However, we have to be careful not to be overzealous in applying this method.
Not all decisions warrant such careful deliberation, for example, what to have for lunch – at least not for me. Do not be discouraged if your first attempt is getting coworkers to be more critical during decision-making doesn’t work out as you intended. It is okay to fail fast, so long as we learn to improve from our failures.
Talk to other teams in your workplace who seem to be more successful at deliberating and making effective decisions, and see if you can learn other strategies from them.
Keep calm and question on.
Walton, D. (2015). Goal-based Reasoning for Argumentation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Walton, D. (1996). Fallacies Arising from Ambiguity. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Walton, D. (1990). Practical Reasoning: Goal-Driven, Knowledge-Based, Action-Guiding Argumentation. Savage, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield.
About the author
Johnson Wong is advisor and learning strategist at the Global School of Technology and Management.
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