30 April 2011

The Foolish Decision

I have been thinking about decision making again. I think this is in part because we, all of us together, have some very difficult decisions to make and we are not currently very successful in that regard. At least it seems so to me.

Whenever we are collaborating (or contending) in groups the question, 'how do we make decisions?' is one of the first questions, though we do not tend to ask it first or explicitly. We tend to rely on habitual and often unexamined models and dispositions of decision making. Furthermore, it is often the case that we take these as 'given' in some way, imagining that our model is shared, or perhaps if not shared 'enforceable' in some way. Beginning to examine this often results in the paradox of the first decision we make having to be the decision about how we are going to make decisions together. It is important to note in this that there are various types of collectives and collaborations that do not have a decision making model as such, because they are not prioritizing decision making as an activity in that way.

I have spent a fair amount of time exploring and suggesting different decision making models and engaged in this inquiry with groups. Functionally such an inquiry can of course lead to more effective decision making, which is assumed to lead to more effective action. Efficiency in this case has to do with whatever qualitative and quantitative criteria are present, also typically taken as 'given.' In this reflection I am considering the disposition in which the decision is taken. I feel this is important to consider. A decision making model, or even meta-model including a spectrum of decision making dynamics is just that, a kind of model. We interact with it as such, with some particular 'use orientation.' For instance, labor unions will often insist on 'consensus' based decisions. It is in the spirit of unionization to do so. Within the union, however, the field of decisions possible is itself often conditioned by processes other than consensus, meaning that the consensus process is a conditioned and limited one. Additionally, the use orientation of a consensus process can often be the intent to be able to prevent certain decisions from being taken, rather than the intent that a decision be taken. This sort of use orientation is often not evident in the decision making process itself or in the choice of decision making models and process.

What I mean by disposition is something like the 'spirit' in which the decision is taken. For instance, imagine it is a decision in which it feels as if a great deal is at stake in some way. In other words, it is a 'serious' decision. We treat whatever process or model is involved, whether explicit or implicit, with appropriate 'seriousness.' We might discount voices, in whatever process, that we do not feel are serious. I am not advocating for this one way or another. I am noticing it as an unexamined dynamic in most decision making processes. When 'seriousness' is used in this way, what is the relationship between the 'serious' and fear, if any? To what extent are our decision making models and processes an expression of the need to control something into existence, based on the notion that something 'bad' will happen if we do not? What makes us assume that 'seriousness' is at all the best way to take decisions together? "Serious" seems mostly to have to do with "weight," as in something weighty or heavy.

I often write about the attempt to 'solve' the 'problems' produced by the 'success' of the industrial era, using the same enacted assumptions that are producing that 'success' and those 'problems.' The underlying dynamic of this is that it tends to reinforce and amplify the dynamics leading to the 'problems.' This is not something to be 'believed' or not. In this kind of thing we might want to verify it for ourselves. That is, we might want to consider where in our own lives this is true or not, in terms of the principle suggested, and with regard to specifics. We might need to experiment with the dynamic in some way to determine this.

The dominant models of decision making that we have in the industrialized social contracts are products of the industrial era, in terms of success criteria. What are your own criteria? How do you determine if the decision is 'serious' or not? How do you even recognize if a decision has been made? What values do you use to determine the success of the process itself? How do you determine the quality of the decision and the process used?

I recently had the chance to talk with two teams of students collaborating on a local project. I was asked by the faculty to talk with them about collaboration. After blathering for a bit, they informed me that they were collaborating to a sufficient degree for the needs of the project. I think they were exactly right. I asked if I could observe them work for awhile. The quality of their conversation together seemed very good to me. When they were done I asked them to close their eyes and answer a few questions. I asked them:

  • Did you just make any specific decisions? [Most thought so.]
  • Did you make a decision about the 'widgets' you were discussing? [Most yes, a couple of no's]
  • Did you decide to include 'widgets' in the design? [about half yes and half no, not by team, a couple of abstentions]

I asked some more things, but you see the point. They would have left the meeting with half of them acting on one reality and the other acting on another and both thinking it was evident what had happened. They all would have felt good about the conversation and meeting, after all they had made some important decisions together. Only later in the process, perhaps when they ended up on site with a barrel full of 'widgets' or an absence of expected 'widgets,' would the conflict contained in the moment of this original meeting become evident.

I notice that for me, something about disposition seems to precede model in some way. At least it seems so to me. Suppose that we are enacting a consultative decision making model together. This means something like a process in which all voices are accounted for and inform some decision making body or position. Suppose the decision is about something that we consider very important in some way. We may view the decision as having some immediate consequence in the world. Can you feel how you might be in such a decision making process? Something is really at stake for you and it feels that way to you. Would you be 'serious' in your participation in the process? How would you treat people who did not match your behavioral profile of 'seriousness?'

What about this? In your own life find someplace where you need to make a decision. Pick something safe. Notice the disposition in which you would habitually make this decision. You could think of this like what 'mood' you are in when you consider it. What state of being, or set of assumptions... what disposition are you animating (or animated by)? Did you consciously choose it or is it just the way you are about these things? Notice the model and process you are using. Try making the decision from a different disposition. To illustrate this, if you are 'serious' about the decision, imagine that you make the decision from a completely 'light hearted' disposition, whatever that means to you. Everything that is at stake is still at stake. All the apparent dynamics, dilemmas, etc. are all still in place. Suppose you have considered all this in your process. To be really extreme, notice the disposition and frame and do the opposite. Be utterly foolish, whatever that means, in imagining making and having made this momentous decision.

Please be clear, I am not suggesting that you simply go out and enact swathes of your life based on this idea. I am suggesting something about noticing the habitual and typically unexamined disposition that we often animate with regard to decision making. I am suggesting a kind of gentle experiment in which you consider a different sort of animation, whatever that may be, and see what you see. It is not an injunction against 'serious' decision making. It is not meant as a kind of self permission to abuse partners and collaborators in decision making processes. It is meant as an exploration of the unexamined assertions and dynamics associated with decision making and models in general. Potentially, such an inquiry creates some conscious ground for decision making. There may be some fundamental choices we must make that inform our decision making.

This is in part the value of the Fool, as such, though if such use orientation is present, then perhaps not so valuable, since the Fool will then be a Serious Fool and who wants that? It is the Fool's fool that habitually exhibits such seriousness.

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