Learning to Make Decisions as a Team

From Cornell University: Making good decisions means seeing the world ''from a different point of view than from the micro-world of numbers.''
Lisa YoonAugust 1, 2004

“Strategic Decision Making and Critical Thinking,” the subjects of an executive education program at Cornell University’s Johnson School, might be the most essential skills for executive success, says Prof. J. Edward Russo, the program director. Yet despite the importance of “thinking to a conclusion,” says Russo, it’s usually a self-taught skill that executives pick up — or, sometimes, fail to learn — as they ascend to the C-suite.

Although Russo’s course is one of the few formal examinations of the topic, he’s big on real-life, on-the-job application. Participants are expected to bring an example of a current decision-making situation from their organization; teams of four or five analyze one another’s scenarios and develop plans for addressing them. In effect, each participant has multiple opportunities to “play consultant” to other organizations and to learn from his or her teammates. (Though no signatures are required, Russo says that the confidentiality of company information has never been an issue in the 10 or so years that he’s taught the course.)

Unlike many programs that are led by faculty teams, Russo’s program is “my baby.” That gives the program a special cohesiveness, says former participant Gary Rodgers of consultancy CNA Corp. Rodgers acknowledges that early on, he and his fellow participants were somewhat bewildered by Russo’s methods — “Where is he taking us with this?” was the essence of some dinnertime conversation. But by week’s end the pieces came together to deliver a powerful message.

Russo’s lesson, in summary, might be that the decision process is a continuum: good learning leads to a good process, which leads to a good decision. And since the process of strategic decision making depends on the entire group of decision makers, it’s critical to understand how others work and think. Rodgers, as a senior manager for CNA — he’s both the chief financial officer and chief administrative officer — felt compelled “to find a way to bridge the gap between finance and technology.” And to do that, maintains Rodgers, “you have to see the world from a different point of view than from the micro-world of numbers.”

Robert Johnston, director of finance for diversified brands at paint producer Sherwin-Williams Co., took away a similar lesson that he bears in mind when he runs a meeting: He listens more. “Let people talk,” he explains, “and get the most data and information you can.” Getting as many ideas as possible out on the table encourages a thorough scenario analysis, says Johnston, and that leads to better decisions.

Though finance executives are a significant part of the participant mix, Russo believes that the ones who need it more are also less likely to attend. “There are two kinds of CFOs,” he explains. The first kind “are so wedded to numbers that they have a very difficult time with non-numerical thinking.” The program’s value seems to be lost on the hardcore number crunchers, continues Russo: “Not everything numerical is right. It’s precise, but it could be precisely wrong.” It’s that second kind of CFO — those who understand that “precise” might mean “precisely wrong” — who can better appreciate the value of strategic decision making.

Johnston believes that the program works best for executives whose companies have “a significant project” that would be worth the investment. For his part, Rodgers found the program so adaptable to situations back at the office that he plans to send all his managers, from both finance and administration, and build up his bench strength. “I’m looking to leave behind a generation of managers that’s a lot more well-rounded than I was,” he says, “when I was at their level.”

Strategic Decision Making and Critical Thinking” will be presented at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University on September 12-17, 2004.