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Use words to get things done

Last year I worked with a client on how we could guide people to make good decisions in situations of uncertainty.

One of the things they told me was that their clients found it very difficult to describe the possible states of affairs they did and didn’t want.

At the time we were talking specifically about the events that could affect whether they achieve their objectives, but I think it also applies to plausible future scenarios that make certain kinds of events more or less likely. The common threads are uncertainty,

The result is that decision makers were not even clear about what it is that they’re making a decision about.

That’s because decision making is a fundamentally symbolic activity.

Making a decision is a process where you hold in your mind a range of possible states of affairs. You think about what you know, what is desirable, what is achievable, and you come to a conclusion about what to do.

We use words, chiefly, but also diagrams, graphs, models, and so on to represent that activity to ourselves and to others.

Challenging those representations is one of the best ways to test our assumptions, become aware of our biases, and understand better where gaps are in knowledge, know-how and resources.

If we don’t rise to the challenge, so what?

Any ‘decisions’ we make will increase uncertainty, rather than decrease it.

That’ll happen in a few ways. One is just through the conceptual confusion, assumptions, opaque reasoning and inadequate information swirling around the decision space.

The other is because of the actions that people decide to take on the basis of that confusion, opacity and poverty of information. Effort is wasted. Work is ineffective. We don’t get good results.

There’s also no accountability, which means that stakeholders lose trust.

We want the opposite of all of that in public sector organisations and corporations.

Instead, what we need is conceptual clarity, transparent reasons, and the use of relevant information and rich knowledge to make decisions about objectives and the best way to achieve them.

What we need is people who understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and are willing to cooperate to get there.

We need to see that productive work is being done by those with the responsibility and the resources to do it on our behalf.

The only way we’re going to get that is by taking the symbolic character of thought and action seriously.

None of this can be done without words

We need to use words precisely, clearly and definitely, right from the get go, to think, decide and act.

Because this is how we bootstrap knowledge out of people’s heads and push past group-think and cognitive biases.

It’s how we describe scenarios that can actually inform decisions and motivate action.

It’s how we define our objectives and capture in meaningful language the risks and opportunities that fill the space between here and now and the future we want.

It’s how we identify, analyse and evaluate the actions that get us to our objectives.

The past year of working with my client was a proof of what I’m saying. What we did was analytical, imaginative and evaluative. Our method was discursive. It was pragmatic. It produced surprises for all of us but the culture of respect and equality in the writer’s group meant we were all safe to speak.

And we produced something. It was excellent. No one else in their sector has done anything like this. My clients–their clients–are using the guides we produced to make better decisions in situations of uncertainty.

Where to now?

I’ve been using that experience to re-think how I consult and what I offer my clients. In coming posts I’ll be exploring how what I’ve talked about here plays out in the following ways.

More soon.

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