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FCW : November and December 2014
STEVE KELMAN is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Commentary | STEVE KELMAN Remember the Tom Petty song, “I Won’t Back Down”? He croons about a hero who vows to stand his ground, even up against the gates of hell. There’s something very Ameri- can about a lone, strong individual standing up for what’s right. Interestingly, though, if you look at the academic literature about how government executives should make decisions, the message is the oppo- site of Petty’s. Consider, for example, the litera- ture on “groupthink,” anchored by the work of psychologist Irving Janis more than 30 years ago. You will see that experts believe the bigger dan- ger is that government executives don’t back down nearly enough. Leaders get too committed to their initial point of view. Instead of using their advisers to provide addi- tional information, register and dis- cuss dissent, and consider alterna- tives, they use advisers for support and endorsement. The result is often ill-considered decisions. Critics of groupthink instead advocate a model Janis calls “vigi- lant decision-making,” where the executive brings in dissenting points of view, doesn’t commit too quickly to a decision and continues to gather information. Just about all the academic research that seeks to relate the quality of decision-making to how well decisions turn out involves presidents’ national security deci- sion-making. So together with Ron Sanders, Gayatri Pandit and Sarah Taylor of Booz Allen Hamilton, I sought to see if the vigilant decision- making model made a difference for other government leaders. We interviewed 20 leaders of sub- Cabinet organizations outside the national security field. Half of them had been nominated as outstanding leaders by good-government experts, and the rest were chosen at random from the Plum Book. We asked all of them the same questions about how they made difficult decisions. We found that both groups of executives were quite methodi- cal about gathering information and soliciting opinions. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising: Government is a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies carefully ponder decisions and give reasons for the decisions they make. But we did find something surpris- ing that made us wonder whether there are times when Petty’s admoni- tion is the right one. We asked our respondents to talk about the most difficult decision they had made, why it was difficult and how they went about deciding. We expected them to talk about decisions that required gathering large amounts of information, fac- ing uncertainty and making trade- offs among conflicting objectives. Instead, nine of the 10 outstanding executives cited a situation in which it was easy to identify the right thing to do but hard to actually do it. That was because the executive’s decision ran into a wall of opposi- tion from colleagues, superiors or overseers or because it involved a wrenching personnel action such as downsizing or getting rid of a senior employee who was not performing well enough. Making those decisions required moral courage. What struck us is that the pre- scriptions for how to make good decisions in complex situations might be very different from those in which the decision involves courage. When complexity is the chal- lenge, the standard prescriptions of wide consultation, information gathering and encouragement of dissent prevail. But if the decision requires courage, it might be better for the executive to consult his or her conscience and seek advisers’ moral support rather than second opinions. Indeed, six of the nine outstanding executives made the decisions requiring courage basically by themselves. In other words, agency executives might need to change their decision- making style depending on whether the decision involves complexity or courage. ■ Know when to stand your ground Research suggests that strategies for making good decisions in complex situations might be very different from those in which the decision involves courage If a decision requires courage, it might be better for the executive to seek advisers’ moral support rather than second opinions. 10 November/December 2014 FCW.COM