Sunday, October 26, 2008

Information for Decision-Making 101

In his 2005 book, Blink:  The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell examines the balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking and concludes that truly successful decision making is a balance between the two.   As in Gladwell’s other bestselling book, The Tipping Point, there are many insights and lessons for the nonprofit leader in Blink.

Take the decoding and sorting of information, for example.  Having a deep knowledge of a topic, combined and honed with experience, allows some people to make seemingly snap interpretations or decisions.  Nonprofit leaders are expected to decode and sort an increasing array of nuts-and-bolts organizational information as well as possess subject matter expertise…and perform these skills in the shifting landscape of social and economic change. 

The challenge for CEOs, particularly in the instance of board members who may not possess deep knowledge or experience about the organization for which they serve, is to provide just enough of both to increase the quality of decision- making.  Gladwell notes, “…in good decision making, frugality matters.”  Overloading decision makers with information makes picking out identifiable patterns harder. 

Given the fact that we often overload our boards, our staffs, and ourselves with reams of data, opinion, and extraneous “information” it’s no wonder that many boards and executive staffs get bogged down.  So, if decision-making takes a balance between the head and the gut, where’s the balance between the right amount and too much information? 

On the practical side, most organizational consultants and time management experts concur that all information needs to be triaged into one of three categories:  1) stuff that really helps good decision-making happen by framing topics and allowing identifiable patterns to be seen and analyzed, 2) stuff that’s nice to know and could be useful at a later time, and 3) just stuff.   Rule of thumb: The quantity of some stuff is almost always directly related to its lack of usefulness (think junk mail).

So, before you send out the next packet of “information” to your board before its next meeting, triage it.  Ask yourself if the material remaining in your category #1 will truly help decision-making.  What would make it better?  Graphs or checklists instead of dense narratives?  A short article or blog post to frame an issue?  Would adding a brief staff presentation or tour at some point during a meeting help to build a board member’s experience, thus adding to their decision-making skill-set?

And, despite humans’ extraordinary abilities to make snap judgments, Gladwell urges we slow it down a bit, “…even the giant computer in our unconscious needs a moment to do its work.”

Photo:  we are making decisions by alphalim 

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