Systems Science and Decision-making

The Descartes school of getting your board to painlessly make decisions

Clients sometimes say things to me like:

“We’ve been around and around on this issue and still haven’t made a decision that everybody is happy with”;    Or

“Even though I thought we’d decided this months ago, the same issue keeps coming up again and again”.

What is happening that smart, experienced people can get stuck in this cycle? Why do key decisions seem to take forever or get revisited again and again without making progress?

The answer (or a part of it, anyway) is that a top-team or a board of directors is a kind of system – by which we mean:

A set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole.

The 17th century French philosopher, mathematician and scientist René Descartes had some interesting things to say about systems and how to work with them. He used the example of a clock, saying that you can’t take one piece out of a complex system like a clock and expect to easily identify the role of either that individual piece or (most importantly) the functioning of the whole clock.

Similarly, if you are one of the pieces in a system, it’s extremely difficult to either:

  • identify where and why that system may not be working so well; or
  • influence the wider system to change.

If you’re a member of the top-team or board, or an employee of it, you’re already plugged-into that system. This is why an external change agent often seems to have a much easier time influencing the board to make changes.


Here are some of my tips, from a systems point of view, for getting a board or a top-team to address an issue or make a decision that has previously been postponed or keeps being revisited. Whilst they’re not directly attributable to Descartes, I’m sure he’d have approved – especially if Post-Its had been around when he was doing his Cogito ergo sum stuff!

1 Don’t do any work on it at all, until all the stakeholders can be present – otherwise you’re not addressing the whole system

2 Recognise that, by and large, most systems are in a state of “homeostasis” – they will work to maintain a balanced and relatively stable equilibrium amongst their component elements (you can see this most easily in biological systems). Changes of any kind, and the decisions to initiate change, are almost an anathema to a functioning system

3Use the power of the system to introduce desire for the decision – most simply, I often just ask the group to list why they would and wouldn’t actually want to make the decision (as opposed to asking what decision they want to make)

4Design some kind of decision-making process that has people up on their feet and moving around. As this is likely to be the opposite of how they usually do things it will (a) counter some of that homeostasis; (b) make it harder to be passively resistant and (c) introduce some dynamism

5Use plenty of Post-its and other tricks to help make people’s thoughts visible and shared with others. Nothing keeps a decision coming back again and again more than somebody feeling that they haven’t aired their view or had it heard

6Discuss the decision-making process upfront, especially around not making a decision or having to revisit it – What do we do if we don’t arrive at a decision? How we will respond if we’re still addressing this in three month’s time? How will we include dissent if it only arises later on? I don’t think the answers to these questions get any easier by asking them upfront, but experience suggests that these issues are then less likely to be a problem

7Talk to an experienced facilitator about your processes. If you want them to actually help at your meetings, then you’ll need somebody who is able to build a good working relationship with your board as a whole and with the individuals, and who is also able to keep their independence and not become too much of a part of your system.


Great One-on-One Meetings for Busy Managers