Thursday, November 16, 2006

Up on the wall: when your career decisions are not yours

Last week I attended a two-day class titled "Problem Solving-Decision Making-Critical Thinking". The course was divided in 5 modules, one of them about decision making. One of the exercises was about choosing a new project lead amongst 4 candidates. We were split into 3 different teams of 5 people to make that decision.

Each team had a large whiteboard to list the decision objectives, alternatives, benefits and risks. The three teams eventually arrived at the same conclusion by applying a formal decision process starting from the performance evaluations and availability data provided for each candidate. As we ruled out one candidate after another and assigned weights to their strengths and weaknesses, something dawned on all participants as revealed later during a lunch break conversation:

"It could have been any of us"

The thought of having your name up on the wall and your skills and traits (including personal ones) dissected by an objective decision process can be frightening. For one, you are not there to explain past incidents or how some perceptions may be inaccurate. Many of the evaluators misread the availability of one of the candidates and ruled him out in the first minutes of the session. Additionally, the majority of the participants assumed that the strongest technical person would not be a good influencer for the rest of team. For this last assumption, everyone went along with the second assumption that the chosen candidate could always consult with the runner up.

With more than 30 minutes, these makeshift "decision boards" probably could have requested more information and arrived at different conclusions. One of the participants argued that the people making the decision would probably be the managers of the candidates. Others dismissed that assumption in favor of another hypothesis, where the first-line managers would present their assessment to the mid-level managers actually responsible for the final call.

Regardless of how someone's name reaches the board, fair decision makers will slap numbers in front of pros and cons, tally up the scores and pick a name. If all the right data and evaluations are considered, the right person will get the job. The others? Well, they may never known that they have been up on the wall.

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