Using Diversity to Drive Better Decisions: A Case Study from The Connecticut Department of Transportation

By Jon Haverly, Master Practitioner for The Wiseman Group
June 7th, 2016

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When faced with making a critical decision that needs to be executed on quickly, the best leaders tap into the collective intelligence around them. We call these Multiplier leaders “Debate Makers”. To accomplish this, Debate Makers will engage experts on the particular topic to participate in the decision-making process through structured debate. They begin by framing a question and providing ample time for participants to gather data and prepare their opening position. During the debate, these leaders will drive a rigorous discussion by having participants explore the question from all sides and angles using facts and data. The ultimate goal of the session being to make a final decision and then communicate that decision along with the rationale to stakeholders.

You may have participated in a similar debate process or even led one yourself. If so, I am sure you have experienced that this inclusive process not only drives better decisions but also more critically increases the speed at which the organization will rally around and execute on that decision.

There is one subtle but very significant change to the above scenario, which will further improve your decision-making process. This simple change is to diversify the group of participants by including people who are not experts on the particular topic.

Wait? Did I read that correctly? One way to improve my decision-making process is to include people not familiar with the topic?

Yes you read it correctly. Let me explain.

There are two main reason to support this logic. The first being that non-experts (rookies on a particular topic) are apt to do more ‘homework’ to prepare for the debate. Liz Wiseman uncovered during her research on rookies that because they don’t have all the answers themselves, rookies tend to ask more questions, listen and seek out opinions of experts. Consider if you were asked to participate in a debate in which you were unfamiliar with the topic. Wouldn’t you spend more time researching the topic than you would on a topic you had subject expertise?

The second reason being that rookies, although not as familiar with the subject, bring diverse experiences and perspectives to the debate. These rookies are more likely to explore new angles and challenge existing assumptions.

Let me share a recent experience that illustrates these points.

Recently I had the opportunity to facilitate a two-day Multipliers sessions for the Connecticut Department of Transportation. The participants included supervisors from across the entire organization; from finance and accounting, to engineering and construction, to road crew leaders and maintenance facility managers.

At the end of the first day we were in the midst of exploring Debate Maker techniques. The next step was to provide everyone an opportunity to experiment with these techniques by participating in a debate topic of their choosing.

One of the road crew leaders suggested an intriguing question regarding the materials used to prepare roads prior to winter storms and whether or not a different material should be used. While this is a topic that he and his peers from the work crews have a lot of first-hand knowledge, the folks from the administrative side of the organization admitted a lack of knowledge on the topic but a curiosity to explore it further. Since the next session was scheduled for the following week, everyone had time to research and prepare their opening positions.

I was very interested to see how the debate would unfold the following week with the participants mixed between expert and rookies. The question on my mind during the next seven days: “To what extent would they prepare?”

The next week I was amazed to see that each debate group brought the outcomes of their significant research, including the results of various studies from other states and past experiences within the Department. One participant even brought physical samples to support his position!

After each group selected their Debate Maker, it was game on (or more appropriately – debate on!). Personally for me this was the most fun I have ever had watching a group of debates. The data being shared and the questions asked during these debate were so thought-provoking I did not want to end the experiment!

So what was the result? One of the most experienced road crew leaders summed it up best when he explained how the road preparation rookies in his group made him pause and consider questions he had never considered before. At his table the participants from the administrative offices asked questions such as; “How would the new material be stored? Would we need to invest in new storage facilities? Where would the Department purchase the new material? Are there local vendors, or would the materials need to be shipped, causing additional costs?”

These types of questions were explored because of the diversity in background of the participants and resulted in more holistic thinking around the decision being addressed.

As I have seen in similar sessions, the rookies come into a debate having conducted more research to make up for their lack of experience. As Liz Wiseman noted in Rookie Smarts, rookies tend to move through the world of work like backpackers venturing out exploring new terrain and are more likely to explore new answers to problems.

While this case demonstrated how including participants from diverse functions across an organization can improve the quality of a debate, there are additional ways to diversify the group of debate participants. For example, even within your own team there is likely a range of backgrounds and experience levels that you can tap into in addition to, including participants from outside your organization or industry.

The next time you need to make a critical decision consider how you can leverage the diversity in experience and perspectives around you to provide new and valuable insights into your decision-making process.

5 Comments

Brenda Breslin

Great insights! An added bonus is that a variety of positions got to see the issue through the eyes of other roles. Wins all around. Thanks for sharing.

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