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Decision-making

Guiding Metaphors and Configuring Choices (Part I) (Part #1)


Part I of a paper for the Development Administration Division of the United Nations Department of Technical Cooperation for Development (UN/DAD/DTCD) prepared for a collection of papers on 'Tools for Critical Choice by Top Decision Makers'. Contract: DTCD 91-11 (see also Part II)


0. Introduction
Varieties of decision-making
Core issues
Decision-making aids
Conceptual scaffolding

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0. Introduction

0.1 Challenge

As many have remarked, faced with the complexity of the times, new approaches to decision-making are called for. There are calls for 'new thinking', even from relatively conservative bodies. Others speak of 'quantum leaps' and 'paradigm shifts' and call for decision-making to reflect such transformation. As Shridath Ramphal, former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, remarks 'there is an unspoken consensus, a kind of global intuition, that things have to change in the world; that we have to do better at managing human affairs and securing human survival' (International Herald Tribune, 12 June 1991). His article described the memorandum on 'Common Responsibility in the 1990s: the Stockholm Initiative on Global Security and Governance' produced in 1991 as a follow-up to the Brandt Commission Report.

These appeals derive in part from a sense of collective impotence and a bankruptcy of collective imagination. On key issues 'appropriate' decisions do not seem to be implementable in practice, with the corollary that on final analysis only 'inappropriate' decisions are effectively implemented.

It may well be that we have reached a point in the policy sciences analogous to that in fundamental physics and astrophysics, for which Frank Dyson remarked that it is not a question of whether a new approach is 'crazy', but rather of whether it is 'crazy enough'. Thus Czechoslovak President, Vaclav Havel, at a conference on the possibilities for a European confederation in June 1991, requested participants 'not to be afraid of daring, unconventional and radical decisions' to stabilize Europe following the dramatic revolutions of 1989 that changed the continent. The issue would seem to be that much ongoing effort at 'new thinking' is more a development of what has proved inadequate in the past rather than a response to the complexities of conditions that tend to subvert its intentions.

0.2 Contextual constraints

The following discussion of decision tools does not apply to conditions in which factors such as the following may be effectively ignored: complexity of issues and institutional networks, incommensurability of necessary initiatives, limits to comprehensibility of range of issues and opportunities, multiplicity of often mutually hostile perspectives, information overload and information underuse, short-term political constraints in the face of long-term urgency, incommunicability of richer insights (especially through the media), irresponsibility and self-interest, corruption and deceit.

Where such constraints can be ignored, conventional decision tools will presumably continue to prove effective.

0.3 In quest of 'New Thinking' and a 'New Language'

What then is 'new thinking'? In part it is associated with the need to move beyond 'tinkering', beyond solving yesterday's problems with marginally innovative approaches, and beyond the old organizational 'language', especially when seen as an exemplar of eurocentric or male chauvinist thinking. Thus, according to the new Prime Minister of France, Edith Cresson, 'In any social system there is a predominant language; in France this is the language of 'techno-structure' and it is a kind of code. Naturally women will eventually be able to use it, but it is foreign to their personality...Men, however, and often men of power, whether of the Left or the Right, use a language which is difficult to understand but which is the coded language of the dominant class.' (Observer, 16 June 1991).

In the light of this quote, an interesting response has been the effort of ecofeminist Janis Birkeland (1991) to articulate the need for a new form of planning: 'Planning is a wealth distribution process without a relevant normative basis, structure, or conceptual framework that can comprehend or resolve the fundamental ethical issues at stake. The existing decision-making concepts and processes reinforce economic inefficiencies and inequities, generate risk and conflict, and close off future options. A fundamental bias against environmental protection and conflict prevention can be traced ultimately to patriarchal values which underpin planning theory.' For her, planning is necessary, but it must be of an entirely new order.

There is however a certain frustration in checklists contrasting 'old' and 'new' thinking, which for some is associated with the attempt to contrast 'left' and 'right' brain hemisphere approaches. For others the stress is placed on the shift from 'linear' to 'non-linear', 'holographic' or even 'intuitive' approaches. The frustration derives from the seeming absence of insight into how such possibilities, however welcome in principle, are to be used in practice by complex organizations -- especially those with a heavy investment in well tried procedures.

It is clear that the many highly publicized management texts on new approaches are a refreshing stimulus to new thinking. In challenging conventional modes they open the possibility of more creative thinking especially inbrainstorming sessions. Above all they increase sensitivity to the possibility of alternatives. But the question remains as to what extent they offer new decision tools of immediate relevance to bodies like the United Nations.

Especially problematic in current approaches to new thinking in management and policy-making is the extent to which they are intimately associated with particular consultants who take people through particular processes. Participants commit themselves, even by contract, to such processes and to the orchestration of the consultant. Whereas this is feasible to some degree in corporations, especially when the CEO imposes the process, it is difficult to imagine how this could be implemented in intergovernmental policy sessions involving meetings of peers. And, to the extent that such new thinking is seen as a further development of the Western mind-set, such resistance would be especially great in the case of multicultural meetings, where hypersensitivity to protocol is a major factor for good reason. Just as such participants do not feel free to question the physical boundaries of their sovereign states, they tend also to be obliged to hold unquestioningly to the psychological and cultural boundaries through which the identity of such states is established. Categories cannot be challenged as readily as in the business world where the financial bottom line is the only real constraint.

readily as in the business world where the financial bottom line is the only real constraint.


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