Friday, April 24, 2009

Collective decision making…

Consider following situations

  • An engineering project is being executed; engineers are facing some technical difficulties in achieving the expected performance. Due to novelty of the project, nobody from the project executing organization has faced exactly same problem before. They are under financial pressure to finish the work at earliest.
  •  A patient is undergoing a surgery in an operating theatre and the team of doctors is facing some unexampled situation.
  • A large scale, completely automated, industrial manufacturing plant handling some hazardous chemicals is having some unusual problems. The control system, by giving out safety alarms, has passed the onus of restoring the plant to safe conditions towards its operators.

In all the above situations a decision, which is going to have some serious consequences, needs to be made in a short time. The urgency, however, is below a threshold at which one is forced to act intuitively. Following situation would help me to explain the threshold better.

A commercial aircraft is landing in auto mode with the help of a well tested (?) state of the art control system. Everything goes fine until the aircraft is just few meters away from the airstrip when its control system suddenly tips its nose towards ground at ridiculous angle (as they would discover it later, a bug in the program was responsible for the incidence). Thankfully the pilot was alert enough and pulled the lever in no time; his action saved a major accident. Forget about consulting his fellow travelers, the pilot can’t even think consciously before taking action.

….You must be thinking that my imagination is producing some impossible examples. The incidence, however, is real. I would have liked to post it with more details but right now I don’t have the reference available with me…

Coming back to the situations described in the beginning… The process of decision making in such situations is very interesting as nobody has experienced the same situation before. Everybody will have his/her opinion. The person in-charge first needs to decide about how the decision should be made. He/she can call all his teammates and consider their opinions, he can ask for some advice from outside if possible, or he himself can take the decision. As the time available is limited, all this needs to be done rather quickly.

I have seen that many a times the person in-charge takes decision on his own. The reasons could be

  • he thinks there is no time to consider all opinions
  •  according to him, he is the best person to take decision (and that’s why he is holding the post)
  • he is too confident about the solution in his mind
  •  or some combination of above and many more possible reasons

Such situations need to be handled very carefully. All of us are subjected to many biases, many of which have been proven scientifically, while we make decisions. The environment, our recent experiences, and our state of mind in general play a significant role in decision making. The opinions of team members should be taken in to account as far as possible to better the decision.

Now it is being proved scientifically that a collective decision is, in general, much better than individual decision. Even though it seems very difficult to distinguish, quantify, and generalize the benefits of one way of decision making over the other, scientists working in this field are somehow managing to do it.

Jonah Lehrer has given some interesting examples of such scientific evidence. The process of decision making in one large hospital was changed deliberately. The doctors, who undewent specialised training, were asked to implement collective decision making processes. It was observed, with the help of some quantifiable parameters, that the decisions which came out of such a process were quite better.

Similar process is also being implemented by some airlines for their crew members.

1 comment:

  1. as always, a really thoughtful and genuine post...
    may be the example of a plane is not what everyone can see or feel...
    so, may be an example of a tight CRICKET match in which a CAPTAIN is supposed to take decisions can be elaborated...
    it includes both below Threshold and threshold...

    i would like to see a post on this...(obviously if it fits into ur geeky subjects)...