Dialogue in Decision-Making Processes

A learning organization can be recognized by the increasing care and professionalism it gives to decision making, where dialogue is an irreplaceable element. Arie de Geus (2008) maintains that if an organization is to learn, it has to take decisions. He distinguishes between (1) simple, routine decisions for which the necessary knowledge is available, and (2) decisions which demand changes in an organization's internal structure.

Dialogic communication that produces better quality arguments and discovery helps in the preparation of such decisions. It should be set up as a process to address uncertainty and complexity and linked to the actual decision in question. However, it cannot (and should not) become a formal process as such, but instead serve to provide sufficient space for people to think, question the "sacred cows" and identify blind spots.

Dialogue offers a chance to tap into the organization's collective intelligence and make better decisions. If decision makers can combine this potential advantage with acceptable timing for their actual decision, the probability of the use of dialogue techniques as a preparatory instrument in decision making grows.

Five Steps the DECISIO Process Map

In many organizations, people feel dialogic communication has a delaying effect on decisions and gives sustenance to uncertainties. It is frequently rejected and only used when absolutely necessary. A change in attitude is needed here. To take sustainable action and make lasting decisions, we need to learn to think differently. The process might be slow at the start, but the actual decision and its translation into action can then happen very quickly.

The DECISIO process map approach provides orientation and/or structure and serves as a communication instrument in decision making. Its metaphoric gestalt promotes insights that are generally inaccessible to the traditional "digital" way of thinking.

DECISIO process map

Figure 11.2. DECISIO process map.

The map treats decision making as a five-step journey through territories where we can sense uncertainty, intangibles, surprises, risks and changes in perspective. The journey takes us from the source (1) into the search territory (2) through the actual resolution (3) to the implementation territory (4) and back to the "feedback" peninsula (5) where we can view the decision process as a whole. In other words, it helps us design a process that allows us to assume responsibility and act.

This is where dialogue comes into play. It can augment the rational aspects of decision making by opening up the imagination to the emotional aspects, ambiguities, and intuitions. Through the train of thoughts which develops in the dialogue, thoughts can turn into thinking and new insights can grow. People can cross the lines that divide individual interests and opposing positions and work together to reach more sound and sustainable decisions. This is a good approach in the decision preparation phase (when people are exploring the source (1) and the search territory (2)). The dialogue and the work in the feedback phase (5) also helps those involved to learn from critical decisions.

Step 1: Source Territory

This is the space in which the actual issue is identified—without ifs or buts. What are the potential risks or opportunities? What must be taken into consideration? What are the consequences of failure? Is it the right time for such a decision? What needs to be done to succeed together? This territory is home to those aspects which steer decision-making behavior and which come into effect throughout the entire process.

Step 2: Search Territory

The point here is to recognize the actual opportunities and determine the right time for a decision. It is important here to brave uncertainty and remain alert and open—exploring even the dark corners of the territory. Participants work together to consider many different "shared" perspectives, discover depth and variety, sharpen and define goals, develop and reject images.

Step 3: Resolution

The thinking and planning process has come to an end. Consideration must now be given to the required actions, resources and competencies. When it comes to "the decision," Susanne Ehmer (2004, p. 217) suggests that dialogue is not a suitable approach. Decisions have a safeguarding effect on the survival of an organization. In this phase, it is better to rely on trusted forms of communication that provide security.

Step 4: Realization

The decision process now takes on a totally different character. This is where all the thinking, wanting, planning, and imagining is translated into action. Those in charge need to have the flexibility and capacity to react should reality prove to be different or have changed more quickly than anticipated when the decision was made. Dialogic units in this phase would seem more to hinder the people involved.

Step 5: Feedback and Lessons Learned

Wrong decisions in organizations can be costly and have debilitating effects. They are good starting points for and sources of individual and collective learning. Bringing together different perspectives as "stories and truths" reveals the different mental models that together led to the (incorrect) decision. This is the starting point for subsequent process optimization—the lessons learned can be translated to the actual organization.

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