Written by Professor Barney Jordaan,

A lot has been written about the fallibility of our decision making abilities - how the quirks of human perception and cognitive traps lead us to make less-than-rational decisions. (See, for example,Kahneman, Thinking, Fast & Slow, 2011; Ariely's Predictably Irrational, 2008; Brafman & Brafman's Sway: the irresistible pull of irrational behavior, 2009). We are all susceptible (see e.g., The case for behavioural strategy available at

Decision making errors can be costly (both in terms of economic consequences and impact on the business and personal relationships that really matter) and are growing more costly in an increasingly complex and inter-connected world.

If we all behaved optimally, costs and benefits would always be accurately weighed, impatience would not exist, gains would never be foregone in order to spite others, no relevant information would ever be overlooked, and moral behaviour would always be aligned with moral attitudes.

Different strategies have been proposed to

facilitate a shift from System 1 (biased) to

System 2 (rational) thinking e.g.-

  • taking an outsider's perspective to a problem to reduce over-confidence about one's own ability and to counter the anchoring effect
  • involving a third party for their perspective
  • having groups rather than individuals make decisions
  • making people accountable for their decisions
  • considering and choosing between multiple options simultaneously rather than considering and rejecting options individually and
  • making choices further in advance of their potential consequences

Is there anything decision-makers can learn from mediation practice to improve the quality of decision-making? I'd like to suggest that the simple joint problem-solving process that mediators often use (based on Moore's The Mediation Process: Practical Strategies for Resolving Conflict, 2003) can go a long way towards improving the quality of decision-making in organisations. It involves five steps-

  • Problem analysis (taking all relevant and available perspectives and information into account)
  • Solution generation (brainstorming options without evaluating their merits)
  • Solution evaluation (detailed discussion and analysis of each option in the context of all the available options)
  • Solution choice (consensually or unilaterally where consensus is absent and a decision needs to be made)
  • Implementation

'Framing' the problem correctly that is, as a search for common ground (joint interests), integration of complementary interests and reconciliation of conflicting ones is key.

Understanding the problem requires, first and foremost, a focus on the interests, needs or concerns of those who are or ought to be involved in the decision-making process; who might be affected by the outcome; are responsible for execution of decisions; or could become the 'black swans' that undermine the decisions taken. This, in turn, requires the ability and willingness of decision-makers for 'perspective taking': putting oneself into the shoes of the other for an understanding of their perspective, needs and interests, thus seeing it as a joint problem.

To get the other's perspective, engagement is necessary, i.e., giving 'voice' to the other party or parties involved so that accurate information could be obtained and they be left with a sense of having been heard. (The benefits of engagement for decision-makers and those who are affected by decisions taken are well documented in the ground-breaking article by Chan Kim & Mauborgne Fair process: managing in the knowledge economy S

Without a proper understanding of the problem, decision quality, implementation and sustainability will suffer. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton: 'It's not that we can't see the solution, it's that we can't see the problem'. Once there is a proper understanding of the problem, one then needs to work systematically through each of the problem-solving steps, looping back if necessary to re-frame the problem, re-prioritise interests and search for further options to consider before a final decision is taken on the matter, either by consensus where this is needed, or else unilaterally where a decision is required.

To conclude, moving as mediators do with parties in conflict from a narrow and often bi-polar ('either-or') solution orientation based on limited and often biased information, decision-makers could develop more of a problem orientation. While solutions will generally present themselves in response to the questions asked, the challenge is to ask the right questions in the first place. Adopting a problem-oriented mindset is a good start.