As originally published in BusinessWeek, this is the third and final installment in a series about improving corporate decision-making. Part 1. Part 2.
What about the customer-service representative at the very bottom of the hierarchy? We all know what happens when we get a voice at other end of the line who is clearly following the manual and making no decisions – “I’m sorry, sir, the policy doesn’t allow me to do that.” That is, for us, the absolute definition of dreadful service – we loathe that experience. We know from experience that the customer-service representative must be a choice-making brain as well.
So every single person in the corporation, from the CEO at the top of the hierarchy to the customer-service representative at the bottom, is a choice-making brain. The distinction between formulation and implementation is false. Most importantly, the dominant design metaphor for the decision factory is deeply, deeply flawed – and a flawed design metaphor will produce flawed designs.
A superior metaphor for the modern decision-factory corporation is a white-water river. In this conceptualization, choices cascade from the top of the corporation (the source in the mountains) to the bottom (the mouth of the river). Each set of rapids is a choice point, with each “upstream” choice setting a context in which the choice immediately “downstream” is made. As decisions cascade downward, the choice-maker above must set the context for the choice-maker below by:
1) specifying her choice and the rationale for the choice;
2) describing the resultant next-level choice that her decision begets;
3) offering to assist in making the resultant choice, to the extent that the next choice-maker needs the assistance; and
4) offering to revisit and modify her decision if the user finds it impossible to make a productive next-level choice in the context of her decision.
HUMAN UNDERSTANDING. Within this cascade of choices, executives at the top of the corporation make the broader, more abstract choices involving larger, long-term investments, while the employees toward the bottom make more concrete, day-to-day decisions that directly influence customer service and satisfaction.
All the choices must integrate with each other to create a seamless cascade. Hence, all the choice-makers feel they’re in a joint venture, even though there’s a clear hierarchy from top to bottom. Importantly, in this conceptualization, every employee is both brains and arms and legs, chooser and doer – just like a real human being!
This conceptualization is also much more conducive to decision-design excellence. When the corporation is understood as a choice cascade, it’s clear to each decision-maker exactly who the users of their choices are and what types of choices those users will need to make subsequently. Since they’re all in the choice cascade together, each decision-maker is more inclined to gain deep user understanding rather than “throwing the choice over the wall” for “implementation.” Deep user understanding provides more raw materials for the visualization of creative solutions.
POSSIBILITY KNOCKS. The cascade also creates a more conducive context for collaborative prototyping. Feedback from the downstream users who are more clearly linked together in a collaborative venture encourages the revisiting and the refinement of upstream decisions over time. The result is a more robustly designed loop of data, insights, and choices that flows from the customer to the top of the corporation and back down again in a productive circle.
A better design metaphor doesn’t guarantee better design. But abandoning the brain vs. arms and legs for the cascading river opens up the possibility for better decision design, leading to creative customer solutions and a healthier, more authentic corporate culture.
Click here to read this article in its entirety at BusinessWeek.com.