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Good Decision Making: It Depends on the Situation

It depends on the situation.”  We’ve heard this a lot when it comes to leadership.  What seems to work in one situation, doesn’t in another.  Southwest Airlines is successful because of the way it operates in delivering quality services to its customers.  Other airlines have tried to duplicate its processes and failed.  When a CEO or other leader creates a way to makes his or her organizational profitable and a great place to work, other organizational leaders try the same approach but achieve very different (poor) results.

Why?  Again, it depends on the situation or context.  Leaders and organizational contexts are complicated and different from one another.  Too often, those differences are not taken into account when implementing a change that seemed to work in one organization but doesn’t in another.

Similarly, what approach to use when making decisions can be very dependant on the situation or context.  At least authors David Snoden and Mary Boone believe it to be so.

They argue that the “traditional” approach to leadership and decision making relies on a basic assumption about organizational theory–that a certain level of predictability and order exists in the world–grounded in a Newtonian view of the universe.  Contrary to that belief, Snoden and Boone posit that organizations and the world are complex. As a result, a new concept of leadership and decision making are needed, based on complexity science, that recognizes the irrational and unpredictave nature of this world.

To that end, they developed a typology or framework that sorts decision making situations or contexts into five categories based on the relationship between the cause and effect of the issues for which a decision must be made:

  1. Simple–clear cause and effect relationships; the right answer exists and is evident to those involved in the decision making process.  Example: regular, process-oriented situations that break down–electronic warehousing system not working.

  2. Complicated–cause and effect relationships are discoverable but not immediately evident; more than one right answer possible.  Example: a situation that requires an expert–you don’t feel well and need a doctor to diagnose what is wrong.

  3. Complex–cause and effect relationships unknowable due to a major change or disruption; many competing ideas; difficult to impose right answers; see patterns only in retrospect. Example: the Apollo 13 flight and the effort by NASA to bring them home safely. (Much of business have seen shift to this category)

  4. Chaotic–constantly shifting cause and effect relationships make them impossible to determine; extreme turbulence exists. Example: the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks.

  5. Disorder–exists when it is unclear which of the other four contexts is operating; discord, conflict, and disagreement rule. Example:  Zombie Apocalypse.

How does this approach work?

Simple Context:  Sense–assess the facts of the situation; Categorize–categorize the facts; and Respond–base response on established “best” practice.

Complicated Context: Sense–assess the facts of the situation; Analyze–consider possible cause and effects; and Respond–develop several “good” alternatives as opposed to the best one.

Complex Context: Probe–Create environments and experiments through which patterns can emerge; Sense–Use methods that produce ideas and new approaches; Respond–Allow the way forward to emerge rather than impose a solution from the start.

Chaotic Context: Act–Bring order to the situation as soon as possible; Sense–Find out where stability exists as a result and where it doesn’t; and Respond–Work to take the situation from chaotic to complex.

Disorder: Try to break down the situation into parts that fit into one of the other four contexts.  Then, work thorough and respond according to contextual guidelines.

Not all decision making context are created equal.  Keep this idea and these guidelines in mind the next time you face an important decision making situation.

Be Decisive!

Jim Dittmar

Dr. James Dittmar is the Founder, President, and CEO of the 3Rivers Leadership Institute which began in 2014.  Prior to this Jim founded the award-winning Geneva College M.S. in Or


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