Is common sense more useful than the rule book when you are making decisions

This is the second of three post (First one here) about some work using SenseMaker to trying and get a better understanding of attitudes towards risk. In particular how ‘well manged risk’ works in relation to innovation and major changes.

Text from the original post is below, with the hopefully familiar ‘What’s the PONT?’ added at the end.

…This is the second post following a pilot session we ran on well-managed risk taking. An explanation of our approach to the session is in the first post, ‘Context is Everything’.

What is helpful when we make decisions?

There are many factors that influence how we make decisions. Some are highly logical, rational, and based upon extensive evidence and information; while others might be driven by ‘gut feeling’ and emotion.

We wanted to see if there was anything in particular that influenced how people thought about decision making in relation to the two risk management frameworks and the three scenarios we presented to them. The thinking that shaped the questions we posed people is explained below.

In each case people were asked to move the white ball on the triangle to a position that bests reflected their thinking – the closer it is to one statement, the more important it was to them (in the context of the risk management framework and scenario they were thinking about).  An example of one of the triangles we used is below

A triangle where people moved a point to show whether clear process and rules, common sense or freedom to act are most helpful in the decision making processThe question ‘what would be helpful to make decisions?’ is quite straightforward.

The choices for each apex on the triangle are all things which should be positive and helpful when making decisions.
– Clear process and rules,
– Common sense, and
– Freedom to act.

There was no right or wrong  answer to where people moved the white ball to on the triangle.

Their choice was literally to identify a place where they felt most comfortable (in the context of the Framework and Scenario we were discussing).

What does the data tell us?

Graphic 1 shows the distribution of the 218 dots in the triangle. Each one of these dots was placed in response to the question; ‘what would help you make decisions’, set within the context of the two frameworks and three scenarios.

In Graphic 2, we have highlighted what look like 4 distinct clusters of dots.

2 triangles where people indicated whether clear process and rules, common sense or freedom to act are most helpful in the decision making process

In Graphic 2, the 4 areas highlighted appear to indicate:

  • Top centre – a preference for clear process and rules (in favour of other options, including common sense)
  • Bottom centre – a preference for using common sense in combination with having the freedom to act (rather than clear process and rules)
  • Middle centre – using all three options (in balance)
  • Right bottom – a preference to have freedom to act, with limited rules, process or common sense (superficially this could be interpreted as reckless approach to risk management – which highlights that the data does require some further examination and understanding)

Examination of the data, using a number of different perspectives follows:

2 triangles where people indicated whether clear process and rules, common sense or freedom to act are most helpful in the decision making process

Observations & Questions: What would help making decisions?

  • Graphic 3. For the Safe to Fail Framework, common sense and freedom to act are preferred (quite strongly) to rules and process
  • Graphic 4. For the Failure Not an Option Framework, there is a more dispersed pattern. There is a grouping towards process and rules, but many dots are scattered elsewhere.

These patterns raised a number of questions:

  • Question 1. Do some people prefer to not use process and rules, even when failure is not an option?
  • Question 2. Does a preference for process and rules (compliance) reduce the need for common sense?
  • Question 3. Does a pressurised environment (failure is not an option) lead to greater indecision and variability in  how people approach decision making (a more scattered pattern of dots)?

2 triangles where people indicated whether clear process and rules, common sense or freedom to act are most helpful in the decision making process

Observations & Questions: What would help making decisions?

  • Graphic 5. For the scenario about a Complaints Handing process the dots are scattered around the triangle approximately matching the overall distribution for all frameworks and all scenarios.
  • Clusters are seen with a preference towards clear rules and process, and another towards a preference towards common sense and freedom to act.
  • Graphic 6. For a scenario linked to tackling obesity, the overall pattern has formed with a preference towards common sense and freedom to act, with few dots close to the process and rules apex.

For clarification, the Complains Handling scenario was about an organisation improving its internal complaints handing process. It was a big challenge, focused in internal processes. Tackling obesity was about a society wide challenge involving multiple partners, citizens and stakeholders.

The patterns raised the following questions:

  • Question 1. Does distribution of dots for the obesity scenario reflect the context? It is a complex situation with many unknowns. There are not clear rules on how to achieve success so, would people prefer to make decisions based upon common sense and the freedom to act (rather than what might appear to be arbitrary rules)?
  • Question 2. Do the dots close to the Freedom to Act apex, distant from both Clear rules and process and Common sense raise any concerns? Is making decision without rules or common sense something that should be avoided?

Common sense the rule book and decision making

Similar to what we described in the first post, the context in which people approach risk management has an influence upon how they make decisions about managing that risk.

The broad conclusions from this test indicate that in a ‘safe to fail’ context, people would find it more helpful to use a combination of common sense and freedom to act to make their decisions, in preference to clear rules and a process. If the challenge they were facing was a situation where failure was not an option, there was a shift towards using clear rules and process, but not a wholesale move. Many people still edged towards wanting freedom to act and using common sense.

The scenario about tackling obesity might help to explain this as it described a complex situation with many unknowns. The desire to have freedom to act and use common sense appears to be more helpful than following clear rules and guidance (which may be arbitrary given the unknown nature of the challenges).

These findings raise a number of questions. Many organisational project and risk management approaches are built upon a clear process and rules. If the organisation places a high value on compliance with the process and rules, there is likely to be a conflict with the desire of many people to use a combination of common sense and freedom to act to make their decisions about risk management (rather than rules and process).

So is common sense more useful that the rule book? Based on this limited analysis, of a small set of data which focused upon people using a safe to fail approach, the answer seems to be yes.  But it does deserve some further examination and wider discussion.

Finally. As mentioned earlier, this is an experiment for us and an example of us ‘working out loud, doing things in the open’. There is still a lot more we would like to do with this data. We are certain that we haven’t got things right and would appreciate any comments and feedback on what we have tried here. If anyone would like to have a look at the dataset and help expand our understanding, please get in touch, we would very much like to talk.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. The ‘safe to fail’ approach is something that people recognised and accepted very quickly. It does make me wonder why it isn’t more common.
  2. The preference for ‘Freedom to Act’ without any involvement of ‘Common Sense’ does intrigue me. This must be a mistake…, but a very useful mistake. It leads to some very interesting conversations.
  3. Same as in the first post, recognition of the ‘points of interest’ seemed to be greater because people were looking at (and interpreting) their own data, rather than if we’d just told them / done it on their behalf.

About whatsthepont

The things I’m currently interested in are: 1.How people learn and share knowledge; 2.Social Media, Web2.0 whatever you want to call the world of the internet; 3.Better public services.

2 Responses

  1. olwenmhughes

    Not thought this through with any care, however I find much resonance with the resolutions people I work with as a coach and a supervisor arrive at. They tend to (very generally speaking) pay attention using things that might be described as their ‘instinct’, ‘sense’, ‘feeling’ and (not least) ‘gut’. They employ freedom to act and rules as the next step. As I say, a very general observation but a persistent one.

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