Friday, March 8, 2019

Decision Making, Values, and Culture Change

Typical New Yorker cover
In the nuclear industry, most decisions are at least arguably “hard,” i.e., decision makers can agree on the facts and identify areas where there is risk or uncertainty.  A recent New Yorker article* on making an indisputably “soft” decision got us wondering if the methods and philosophy described in the article might provide some insight into qualitative personal decisions in the nuclear space.

Author Joshua Rothman’s interest in decision making was piqued by the impending birth of his first child.  When exactly did he decide that he wanted children (after not wanting them) and then participate with his wife to make it happen?  As he says, “If I made a decision, it wasn’t a very decisive one.”  Thus began his research into decision making methods and philosophy.

Rothman opens with a quick review of several decision making techniques.  He describes Benjamin Franklin’s “prudential algebra,” Charles Darwin’s lists of pros and cons, Leo Tolstoy’s expositions in War and Peace (where it appears the biggest decisions basically make themselves), and modern decision science processes that develop decisions through iterative activities performed by groups, scenario planning and war games. 

Eventually the author gets to decision theory, which holds that sound decisions flow from values.  Decision makers ask what they value and then seek to maximize it.  But what if “we’re unsure what we care about, or when we anticipate that what we care about might shift”?  What if we opt to change our values? 

The focus on values leads to philosophy.  Rothman draws heavily on the work of Agnes Callard, a philosopher at the University of Chicago, who believes that life-altering decisions are not made suddenly but through a more gradual process: “Old Person aspires to become New Person.”  Callard emphasizes that aspiration is different from ambition.  Ambitious people know exactly why they’re doing something, e.g., taking a class to get a good grade or modeling different behavior to satisfy regulatory scrutiny.  Aspirants, on the other hand, have a harder time because they have a less clear sense of their current activities’ value and can only hope their future selves can understand and appreciate it.  “To aspire, Callard writes, is to judge one’s present-day self by the standards of a future self who doesn’t yet exist.”

Our Perspective

We can consider the change of an organization’s culture as the integration over time of the changes in all its members’ behaviors and values.  We know that values underlie culture and significant cultural change requires shifting the actual (as opposed to the espoused) values of the organization.  This is not easy.  The organization’s more ambitious members will find it easier to get with the program; they know change is essential and are willing to adapt to keep their jobs or improve their standing.  The merely aspiring will have a harder time.  Because they lack a clear picture of the future organizational culture, they may be troubled by unexplored options, i.e., some different path or future that might be equally good or even better.  They may learn that no matter how deeply they study the experience of others, they still don’t really know what they’re getting into.  They don’t understand what the change experience will be like and how it will affect them.  They may be frustrated to discover that modeling desired new behaviors does not help because they still feel like the same people in the old culture.  Since personal change is not instantaneous, they may even get stuck somewhere between the old culture and the new culture.

Bottom line: Cultural change is harder for some people than others.  This article is an easy read that offers an introduction to the personal dynamics associated with changing one’s outlook or values.

*  J. Rothman, “The Art of Decision-Making,” The New Yorker (Jan. 21, 2019).  Retrieved March 1, 2019.