What decision process did the CEOs use to agree their communique?

As I wrote yesterday, The Times recruited more than 100 CEOs and Chairmen of our biggest companies to take part in a two day summit called “Ambitious for Britain”. Their communiqué was published in Wednesday’s edition of the newspaper in the form of a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I looked at the five ways to “pull Britain out of its anaemic recovery”, and pointed out that it was a slightly odd list.

In today’s blog I look at decision process. I wasn’t present at the Summit. I have no inside track. So what follows is supposition and (hopefully informed) guess work.

Let’s start by looking at what decision traps await a big group of powerful business leaders, temporarily obliged to make common cause with each other? Are there particular problems when you take these “big beasts” out of the packs they normally dominate?

There are several possible decision traps, all well documented in decision science, which might have hampered the group’s work:

  • GROUP FAILURE: Refusing to accept that a team of bright people can make bad decisions
  • PRESSURE PARALYSIS: Getting the frame of reference wrong under pressure
  • ANALYSIS BYPASS: Too much information / not enough time to analyse it properly
  • INFORMATION UNDERLOAD: Believing you have enough knowledge to proceed, when you actually need more intelligence and research
  • ‘WHAT IF’ WEAROUT: Not being rigorous in looking at possible scenarios.

But I think the greatest problem was not learning from Meredith Belbin. Belbin is the management theorist, who while lecturing at the Administrative Staff College (later to become Henley Management College) in the 1960’s, discovered that well-balanced teams would always outperform teams more or less exclusively composed of ‘stars’. His 1981 book Management Teams gave the world key membership roles like:

‘Plant’: the left field problem-solver

‘Resource Investigator’: networker who recruits outside expertise, so reducing the group’s dependence on received wisdom

‘Monitor-Evaluator’: the devil’s advocate and objective stickler

‘Completer Finisher’: detail zealot

It is highly likely that the Chairmen and CEOs were not any of the above, but a mixture of two other Belbin types:

‘Shaper’: rigorous visionary who can guide the group under pressure

‘Co-ordinator’: the one who insists on everyone being consulted and listened to.

 Another problem for the Summit delegates must have been an imbalance of personality profiles: too many drivers and expressives, too few analysts and amiables.

Overall there is a big lesson to be drawn from the Summit, I believe: a big team comprised of dominant leaders is very unlikely to be functional! In this instance, it is not a criticism of the leaders themselves, but of the idea that the Summit could ever achieve its goals.