Decision-making and organisation

Jonah Lehrer’s book the Decisive Moment gives strong insight into how we make decisions. Insight that helps to explain why we are at a turning point in human and societal development.

The instinctive decisions related to survival come out of our reptilian brain and are reasonably obvious. If we are about to be hit by a bus the decision to move out of the way is taken rapidly and instinctively. This part of our brain has had hundreds of millions of years of evolution and is very, very fast and efficient. From a conscious perspective these decisions just happen.

Our mammalian brain has had 65 million years to evolve an effective means of learning from experience. Many of our decisions come from this part of our brain and appear as feelings – something feels like the right thing to do (we also call this intuition).

This covers a surprisingly large range of decisions.

In effect, this part of our brain has a feel for anything we have experienced before and can synthesise a wide range of inputs into a single decision. It takes about 10,000 hours to become expert at something – typically taking ten years to accumulate so many hours – and once expert we “know” what the best course of action is.

In a stable environment experts will provide the best decisions and we have relied heavily on experts in the past (and even now in many areas of life). A reliance on experts will show itself in a hierarchical model of organisation, the person higher up makes better decisions and thus should be deferred to, all the way up to the most powerful person at the pinnacle of the organisation or political system.

The neocortex is the third part of our decision-making apparatus that brings some very powerful tools including logic, calculation, extrapolation, modelling and metaphor. These are ideal for solving problems that we have not come across before. In effect, this allows us to create something, a solution, an idea, a process, a product that did not exist before. However, the neocortex is only about 100,000 years old – young in evolutionary terms – and remains energy intensive and not very efficient, for example we can only hold about four variables in memory at one time. Thus if we have a new, complex problem (i.e. with many more than four variables) the only way we can solve it is through a collaborative process involving diverse views – sufficiently diverse that all variables are held by someone – and an environment in which all views are properly aired and then synthesised into a solution that no individual would be likely to come to by themselves but is accepted by all participants as the best solution. This is a distinct departure from relying on experts and leads to organisational forms that are much more inclusive, collaborative and flatter – or networked – in structure.

One of the difficulties for the individual is to know when to use which decision-making process. Buying a house we should rely on feel (too many variables but a well known problem). Buying a corkscrew we should rely on logic (ease of use, look, price, perhaps being the variables you might use). From a societal point of view, when we move from a stable environment to one in which the problems we face are predominantly new, how do we change our organisational forms in a timely way?

As a world we now face issues and problems that we have not faced before: peak oil, aging populations, limits to growth, climate change and rapid technological change. To solve the problems that these issues create we need new organisational forms. These forms ARE struggling to emerge but are being limited by old organisational forms and their embodied decision-making processes trying to maintain the status quo, sometimes harshly. The best decision? Keep on plugging away building the new!

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