Decision-Making Ambidexterity


Decision Making

Decision-Making Ambidexterity

Steven Kelman Faculty ResearcherSteven Kelman, Albert J. Weatherhead III and Richard W. Weatherhead Professor of Public Management, Harvard Kennedy SchoolPaper Title
“I Won’t Back Down?” Complexity and Courage in Federal Decision-MakingCoauthors
Ronald Sanders, Gayatri Pandit, Sarah Taylor, Booz Allen Hamilton

Good decision-making skills are a fundamental component of successful leadership. Discerning which decisions require the implementation of particular decision-making processes, however, is part of what makes a truly outstanding leader. Indeed, a recent study by Steven Kelman, Harvard Kennedy School’s Weatherhead Professor of Public Management, suggests that a leader’s success may be related to his or her dexterity in applying various approaches.

Making good decisions is challenging, of course, and so is evaluating exactly how those decisions are made. Despite the difficulties, much has been written on the topic, and much of that literature explores how group decision making can compensate for cognitive limitations and biases at the individual level. In their paper “‘I Won’t Back Down?’ Complexity and Courage in Federal Decision-Making,” Kelman and his coauthors, Ronald Sanders, Gayatri Pandit, and Sarah Taylor, all of Booz Allen Hamilton, note that a general paradigm for more effective group decision making has emerged. Vigilant problem-solving, as it is called, suggests that “more is better” for a leader making a difficult decision—more information-gathering, more discussion, and more opportunities to hear dissent.

Kelman’s study explored the extent to which senior U.S. federal executives follow the prescriptions that appear in the academic literature on making good decisions. He and his team conducted interviews with 20 heads of subcabinet-level organizations within the Obama administration. The sample size was small, but the authors note that they sacrificed breadth for depth, conducting extensive interviews with these senior officials.

Ten leaders acted as the study’s control group, and were pulled from a random group of executives in the administration with titles such as director, assistant secretary, chief financial officer, and chief information officer. The other ten were considered to be outstanding executives, chosen from nominations made by experts on the U.S. government, including fellows of the National Academy of Public Administration, the Strategic Advisors to Government Executives, and a small group of current senior officials with a government-wide view.

The results of the study both confirmed and negated the researchers’ expectations. “We went in to look at whether these executives were doing what the literature said they should be doing in order to avoid the dangers of ‘groupthink’ in their decision-making processes,” says Kelman, “such as consulting widely, encouraging dissent, and encouraging trusted advisors to give different, challenging opinions. And for the most part, we found they generally did do that. Half of our paper discusses those results. But we also found something we really didn’t expect.”

One question asked of participants was about the most difficult decision they had made. Kelman and his team expected that, in line with what the literature presents, these decisions would be either politically, technically, or informationally complex, or involve difficult value trade-offs. “What we found instead,” Kelman says, “was that for all of the outstanding executives, the most difficult decision they described was one where they knew what the right thing to do was and the hard part was getting the courage to make the decision.” Some examples were “decisions to eliminate or expand programs, reassign (or remove) senior career staff, challenge the Government Accountability Office or the Office of Management and Budget, and even oppose a directive from higher headquarters.”

As the study’s authors note, these “most difficult” decisions are not the ones executives make all the time, but they do raise “an important question about the ‘more is better’ prescription in the group decision-making literature.” That approach may not be appropriate for decisions that mostly involve courage, Kelman says, when more introspection is required, not more information. “With these types of decisions,” he says, “you might want less dissent and disagreement, and more resolve and support.”

Kelman and his colleagues admit they can do little more than speculate on findings they did not set out to uncover, but they do theorize “that successful executives must be be ambidextrous in decision processes they use.” As he explains, “I would advise a leader to get good at identifying what kind of decision he or she is making.” Worthwhile research might explore just how this can best be achieved.

- by Susannah Ketchum Glass

“The most difficult decision they described was one where they knew what the right thing to do was and the hard part was getting the courage to make the decision.”

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