Satisficing and the Damascene moment

7 05 2009

Last week I was away visiting a colleague and rather like Saul of Tarsus I had a moment of clarity and understanding as I travelled. Somewhere in the air over the Adriatic as I read, “The Exceptional Manager: Making the Difference” (Delbridge, Gratton and Johnson 2006)  I read a paragraph containing the word satisficing. With an explanation of that word came my own, personal, Damascene moment.

The concept of bounded reality in philosophy was described by Herbert Simon (1956) to encapsulate the decision making process of an individual faced with a finite amount of time and the limitations of their own knowledge and experience. The decision that is arrived at amounts to necessary simplification of the situation and subsequent interpretation and decision making on the basis of previous experience. The result is seldom optimal but hopefully acceptable. Thus it is held to be a satisfactory, sufficing decision; satisficing.

This behaviour is exemplified by the consensus approach of group decision making and also the short-term view of resource management. It is commended by many as an optimal strategy in management.

As a surgeon this sort of decision making and behaviour is anathema. What is required in surgical practice is not a “best guess in the time available” approach. Study of all available knowledge of a problem, utilising the combined and continually advancing wisdom of a group on a subject and a set of limited, predictable outcomes allows optimal decision making within a finite amount of time and (hopefully) the best answer.

My mistake, changed in a moment of clarity and understanding, is that management practice is not the same as surgical practice; decision making and behaviour in management is necessarily satisficing.

Perhaps this exposes my naivety but this after all is a learning journey.

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