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Tom Alderman

Tom Alderman

Posted: July 23, 2009 01:19 PM

Deciding How to Decide -- Making Critical Choices


THE ART OF CRITICAL DECISION MAKING
Genre: Audio or video Course
Length: Twenty-four, thirty-minute lectures
Teacher: Prof. Michael Roberto, Bryant University
Publisher: The Teaching Company

Following the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy asked former President Eisenhower to the White House to seek the old soldier's counsel. The new president wanted to know what he could learn from the whole sorry mess. Instead of the expected military hoo-hah, Ike wanted to know how the decision was made to go ahead with the Cuban invasion? How did the president gather advice from his advisors? Not a surprising question considering the five-star general led a contentious military coalition during World War II, not because of his martial skills, but because of his extraordinary leadership abilities which included understanding the core ingredient in all critical decision making: whether you're launching a D-Day invasion, a career, a product or service, HOW you decide is more important than WHAT you decide. The process you use determines a successful outcome and if that process is not clear and effective, you're going down.

Song writer Fats Waller put it another way, "T'aint what you do, it's the way that you do it." While Ike and Fats nailed it, a fellow named Michael Roberto gives it depth and dimension in The Art of Critical Decision Making, 24, exceptionally cogent lectures offered through The Teaching Company. These are the Chantilly, Va. based folks who troll the country for master, college/university level teachers, put them on video and audio, and sell their wisdom and courses through an extensive catalog.

Roberto, Trustee Professor of Management at Bryant University and a Harvard Business School grad, says, "The biggest mistake individuals make when faced with important decisions is the 'sunk-cost effect.' We keep sinking time, money and resources into a failing course of action because we've already sunk so much time, money and resources on it."

Roberto uses the 1996 Mt. Everest Into Thin Air tragedy as an classic example of a flawed decision made mostly because the climbers had already plowed $65,000 into the project, plus months of training and preparation and they were not about to give it all up so close to the summit. Five climbers died as a result.

Drawing heavily from his government and business consulting work, two previous books on leadership and extensive research by others, Roberto examines real case histories, diagnoses how decisions are made and offers structures and guidelines to move the process forward. Powerful stuff. The Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, Columbia shuttle disaster, Coca-Cola's blundered New Coke decision, General Motors' decline, Enron's collapse, and Washington's 17 different intelligence agencies, are among examples well ventilated in Roberto's course.

One of his main points is that while some organizations default to a top-down approach - the alpha-dog proposes and everyone else disposes - Roberto recommends an inclusive process that generates constructive conflict and debate among a group BUT is well managed from the top. Good leaders design, shape and direct the process, he says. They know that "It's important to understand there are two forms of conflict. COGNITIVE conflict is task oriented. It's debate about issues and ideas. AFFECTIVE conflict is emotional and personal in nature. It's about personality clashes, anger, and personal friction." He maintains that effective leaders channel emotions; they do not try to eliminate them.

When asked if the process works for any organization, Roberto politely points out that university and college institutions are a bit challenged when it comes to making decisions. You can't lead, says the professor, when you have a huge group of tenured people who can't be fired. Ouch.

BOTTOM LINE
For any leader, any group, making tough decisions - except, perhaps, academia - Roberto's unambiguous, extensive and genuinely engaging course is like having a heavyweight advisor on hand without the $500 hourly fee.