Distributed decision making – flagging a new area of development.

July 14, 2023

Andrew keymaster 3vf0fBw15HY unsplashI’ve never liked the whole-body metaphors that are used by Senge and others in Systems Dynamics, especially as they are framed in Cartesian terms with the brain providing direction.  It allows people to be placed in the category of muscles and god help us, the heart.  I notice the kidney and spleen are less attractive to people who use that metaphor.   While I don’t like the association, there are things about the way humans reduce the energy cost of decision-making which could be used to have a major impact on organisations and societies.  It’s one of my major areas of interest at the moment and I’ve moved into the experimental stage for those interested.

Now any statements about human decision-making are going to be partial approximations of things we don’t fully understand yet; so please take that as a qualification.   While not fully understanding what is right,  we can exclude some things as incoherent; in particular rational information/cognitive-centric models that dominated a lot of enlightenment thinking and persist to this day in a lot of management thinking.  The reality is that higher cognitive functions use a lot of energy.  The brain is using 20% of metabolic energy but is only 2% of our body weight.  One of the reasons I was attracted to Constructor Theory in creating Estuarine Mapping is that it focuses on energy minimisation.  Their take on evolution in this respect is important and gives us a starting point to think very differently about things, but I’m still working on the links between that and epigenetics and a few other things.

As evolution tends to energy minimisation most of the time we don’t engage in higher cognitive functions.  You don’t have to decide to pull your hand away from a hot plate your body does it for you.  Most of the time we go with the flow of the narrative and behavioural patterns of our proximate relationships, we don’t stand out from the crowd.  We delegate decision-making to experts in specialist fields although that is less common these days as it wasn’t 100% successful so too many people are trying populism as an alternative.  The reason 83% of people don’t see got Gorilla in the final X-Ray is that they do not expect to see it.  The number of people who noticed that chocolate bars melted when maintaining the magneto of a radar machine was high, but one person realised its significance.   Cognitive diversity in humans in evolutionary terms means that as a species people see things in different ways.  All of that is something we build on with SenseMaker® for mapping up the layers.

One of the other ways we reduce energy consumption is through roles and these tend to emerge based on various experiences and are frequently formalised with role-based entry helping stabilise their function and interactions between said functions,  I’ve previously talked about the difference between teams and crews and I also built on that with the entangled trios’ method which is a part of the EU Field Guide.  Both of those approaches are distributed into networks and once established do not require active top-down management.  In effect, they reduce the energy cost of decision-making.  But if anomalies start to emerge and at the autonomic system starts to fail, then we need to engage novelty receptive processes that involve different perspectives and ‘higher’ levels of authority.

Now the reality of post-BPR management (it is not Taylorism that didn’t make this error) most decisions end up being hierarchical.  When I worked in IBM the amount of time senior VPs and GMs spent in online authorisation was farcical.  In the NHS in the UK, a huge amount of energy is wasted in bureaucratic control mechanisms which either confirm things anyone with real knowledge knew should happen or from time to time counter common sense and also counter purpose.  When IBM saved £200 on a training course it cost a very significant sum of money in penalties on a software upgrade where the systems programmer was trying to learn stuff from the manual in a crisis.  For me, it was less that this was stupid but in the post hoc analysis, the owner of the training budget was not remotely concerned about the consequences as he was not measured on it.

So the new thing we are working on, which is an extension of several of the links above is the dynamic allocation of resources in networks without reference up.  Lots of small things which, if they generate exceptions attract attention but otherwise do not.  With lots of small initiatives (also a feature of Estuarine Mapping as a pre-process) we can afford reasonable levels of failure and consequently gain learning.  With larger projects failure is difficult to accept and learning is suppressed.   We’ve also been working with a more ethical use of the panopticon effect to handle transparency and audit needs in large organisations.   If anyone is interested in experimenting with this then there is a white paper but I’m keeping it as subject to NDA for the moment while we work things out along with supporting software.  It is something I am excited about and it’s been a few years on formation.  By distributing decision making our micro-decisions also become a means of exploration, stimulating tolerable levels of failure allows opportunities to bubble up that would otherwise be suppressed.  The leader now long stands alone but is part of a network.

Ironically the use of technology to increase transparency has often resulted in less willingness to take risks and innovate.  Again it’s a problem of the holistic idea, the idolisation of idealistic properties.  Here information flow and transparency are working at the wrong level of granularity with consequent issues.

Note also that I am not talking about the qualities of a leader to allow delegation, I am talking about processes that will enable the emergence of desirable qualities.   Alicia Juarrero makes a good point that ‘fitness’ in Darwin’s time was related to bespoke tailoring, not a jungle gym; it was a mutual accommodation.  Fitness landscapes, which are used in SenseMaker® along with adaptions based on those ideas, demonstrate what is possible, not what some over-enthusiastic gym teacher thinks we can achieve by driving through a pain barrier.   Creating landscapes of interactions over time that enables novelty to emerge without constant hierarchical control is far more effective than admonishments to virtue or coaching leaders to behave differently.

But I still don’t like the metaphor …


The posting on LinkedIn attracted a comment from my good (but recent) friend Delia McCabe which I don’t want to loose as its important for the overall approach

Interesting article Dave Snowden – thank you for sharing your thoughts. It could also be that distributed decision-making, apart from allowing for small changes and adjustments, accompanied by increases in knowledge around the changes, also means reduced levels of cortisol as there’s reduced pressure to make the ‘right’ decision. This reduction in cortisol supports improved decision-making simply due to how it affects pre-frontal cortex – higher cognitive – functioning. 

It’s amazing how few people consider neural energy requirements, especially as relates to executive functioning and decision-making – when it’s fundamental to the process. Also, the discussion around interoception and how our body guides / drives responses – fascinating area of interest! Look forward to seeing your thoughts unfold! 


The banner picture is cropped from an original by sayan Nath.  Bubbles is by Andrew Keymaster. Both on Unsplash

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