Even in Chaos, You Can Make Good Decisions

While the pace and complexity of today's business environment makes seeing and planning for the future more difficult than ever, association leaders can take a few cues from some of the world's best decision makers. Author Noreena Hertz, closing out the 2014 ASAE Annual Meeting, explained how.

On a scale of zero to 10, how challenging is the environment that associations are navigating in 2014?

History is not an army on a forward march. What worked yesterday will not necessarily work tomorrow, especially in a world as fast-moving as ours.

In an on-the-spot poll conducted over lunch at the Closing General Session of the 2014 ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Nashville on Tuesday, most of the hundreds of association executives and industry partners in the room held up both hands, displaying nines and tens.

It was, presumably, exactly what Noreena Hertz expected when she posed the question as the meeting’s closing keynoter. Hertz, associate director of the Centre for International Business at the University of Cambridge and author of Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World, painted an alarming picture of the landscape organizations find themselves operating in today—marked by macro trends like the information explosion, the “supertransparency” of information that technology enables, continuous disruptive innovation, and ongoing economic turbulence and political instability around the world.

“History is not an army on a forward march,” Hertz said. “What worked yesterday will not necessarily work tomorrow, especially in a world as fast-moving as ours. We are living in times in which the rate of change is unprecedented, in which figuring out the future and how to succeed in it is increasingly challenging.”

The key for organizations is to build the capacity to make good decisions in this environment, Hertz said. Drawing on research conducted for her book, Hertz shared several insights for how association leaders can emulate the world’s best decision makers.

Become a smarter information hunter-gatherer. ”The old world of information in which there were elites who were the custodians of truth who handed their wisdom to [others] is no longer the model,” Hertz said. “Today information has been democratized, and anyone can become an information hunter-gatherer.”

And while associations can be included among the old-model “elites,” the new model offers “a huge opportunity for you to be the trusted curator, for you to be the chief intelligence officer for your members, for you to help your members work out the signal from the noise,” she said.

To do that, associations need to cast a wider net beyond traditional “experts” and find nontraditional sources of information, especially among their own members. “You can aggregate this information, capture it, make sense of it,” Hertz said.

Accept that times are changing. “Success can sometimes be the thing that stops you going forward,” Hertz said, citing examples of successful technology and auto companies that stumbled when they failed to adapt to transformative changes in their industries. “Don’t be so committed to plan A that you don’t have plans B, C, and D in your pocket. Managing a fast-moving environment means making decisions as late in the day as possible.”

Seek out different points of view for the leadership team. Hertz’s research supports the notion that groups make superior decisions when their members don’t all think alike. She urged both diversity—recruiting people of different backgrounds and perspectives to the leadership team—and inclusion—ensuring their participation. The best CEOs note when meeting participants are unengaged and actively bring them back into the discussion, she said, and they encourage dissent. “Who is your challenger-in-chief,” Hertz asked, “and are you listening to him or her?”

Get into decision-making shape. Becoming a high-performing decision maker “is like training for the Olympics. There are a whole host of factors that we may not be aware of that affect our decision making,” Hertz said. Chief among those are a person’s emotional and physical state at the moment when a decision must be made. A leader’s drive to work long, hard hours can be his or her worst enemy, she noted: “Research shows if you go a week on just four or five hours of sleep a night or pull an all-nighter, it’s as if you’re making decisions drunk.”

Carve out time to think. This simple advice appeared to pose the biggest hurdle for Hertz’s audience, many of whom balked at her challenge to carve out 10 minutes a day for the rest of the week to devote to nothing but thinking. “The danger is that, in this state, we only are in responsive mode, and what is truly important gets crowded out by what’s immediate, what’s right before us,” she said.

Tactics used by the best decision makers in her research included blocking out time on their schedule for thinking, unplugging completely from technology one day a week, and reading email in batches a few times a day rather than allowing it to be a continuous interruption. “Every time we check an email, it takes 22 minutes to get back to the same level of focus we were at before,” Hertz said.

“We need time and space to think, to imagine, to dream,” she said. “Dream well.”


Julie Shoop

By Julie Shoop

Julie Shoop is the Editor-in-Chief of Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!