Something fundamental has gone wrong with the decision-making process
“[A]n unrecorded decision may well be, indeed should be, considered as a sure sign that something fundamental has gone wrong with the decision-making process, that one should look for the presence of schemers who can impose projects on those who should know better; that one should also look for powerful external pressures reverberating through the decision-making process — pressures that cannot be resisted and lead to decisions for which there is no real acceptance of responsibility (and are therefore unrecorded). All of this serves to underline a point that is not stressed enough in the political science literature: decision-making is fundamentally a process for assuming responsibility for a proposed action.” Allison, Graham., Zelikow, Philip. (1999) Essence of Decision. 2nd Edition. Footnote, p. 270. Longman, New York.
The footnote is a distillation of a lesson learned on the beaches of Dieppe. They paid that tuition. Why pay it twice?
In this post, I’ll break down the footnote, and do my level best to explain a stance. I make no promise that the stance will be useful to imitate.
Callback: Communication Overhead
If communication overhead is the price we pay for living in a complex society, then we might as well try to maximize the return on that investment.
In a very dense post I wrote in 2015, entitled Communication Overhead (II), I expanded on the distinction between talkers and shippers, decision making, morphing, and expressed frustration with a glancing Spicer reference (Spicy!).
I was impatient then. While my time in public service helped me to develop more patience, I don’t nearly have as much as I could. The root of impatience is fear. At the time I was afraid for the institution. I was afraid that it wasn’t sufficiently responsive to its environment for it to survive. I was afraid that it was at risk of irrelevance. Impatience is rooted in fear. Maybe impatience is fear, rebranded, repackaged, and reimagined?
My battle with fear will never be done. Impatience as a tool, an indicator, something that unlocks the curiosity about what’s causing the fear itself, may be a useful way to reframe it. If it’s going to persist, it might as well be useful.
In that state, prior to October 2015, I perceived communication, over and above what was absolutely necessary, as overhead. I didn’t call it waste. Some did. Sometimes it sure felt that way. It was causing tremendous suffering. It still does. I suggested that it was a necessary cost to be incurred to generate enough cohesion to automate decision making. The communication needed to happen so that talkers could get to a point to ship, and for shippers to ship.
In 2020, I expanded that simple segmentation, of shippers and talkers, and added a dimension, reconciling the four stages of a facilitated discussion (Objective, Reflective, Interpretive, and Decision) and the four states people get in (Divergers, Convergers, Connectors, and Executors). Into those 16 boxes, I poured internal emotional state and external blurting. It’s still overhead…only organized into something more useful.
Since, in the absence of total decision automation, we’re stuck with each other. Let’s make the most out of the overhead.
The Decision Making Process
The existence of decision suggests a process. Let’s go to the extremes.
Even a solopreneur, an entrepreneur who is running alone, has to make decisions. No matter where they go, there they are. They have to talk to themselves. They have to make up their mind.
Simulate it for yourself: Who? What? Value? How? Who is the customer? What is the value proposition? How is the proposition created? Value – how is it captured / how is the firm recognized? How is the proposition created? 
The solopreneur has to answer those questions. If they refuse, they fail. If they don’t answer them sufficiently correctly, they fail. And in that way, a solopreneur isn’t really alone. It can feel that way. But that’s a false feeling.
When we increase the size of the startup, team, or organization, from one to two, the existence of a decision making process becomes quite a bit more obvious.
The lack of a decision making process becomes completely obvious at three or more people.
Just as different decisions have different quality attributes, different decision making processes have quality attributes.
Now that I’ve convinced you that communication overhead is inescapable in the absence of decision automation, and that a decision making process exists even if you’re alone, let’s unpack the quote.
[A]n unrecorded decision may well be, indeed should be, considered as a sure sign that something fundamental has gone wrong with the decision-making process
Writing is a super power.
When you write things down, when you record things, you capture the concepts, symbols, and information at the time that it happened. Contemporaneous documentation is the fabric of history.
On most nights, I lay down, close my eyes, and reluctantly enter a state that allows my body to bathe my brain in chemicals. These chemicals are great. They clean up plaques and flush away the byproducts of consciousness. And while my brain is soaked, my neurons go wild, firing off different networks, that in turn, create a simulation of consciousness that tries to make sense of what’s going on. Sometimes the memory of those attempts are recorded. Sometimes I can remember a dream. Sometimes I don’t. Every time my brain is washed, I wake up a different person. I’ve changed mind because my mind has been changed. And I wasn’t even really around to change it. I’m not directing the change any more than a sock in washing machine does.
The advantage of recording things is that you retain a record of what your past self thought as your consciousness was recording in words. And then, when you read those words as a future self, you can be conscious of comparing what the version of you now, thinks about the previous version of what you thought.
When the superpower of making a decision is combined with the superpower of writing, you create an artifact that is stunning. It’s useful not only for the author of the decision, but it’s useful for all the people that follow. When you organize decisions by recording them, you are a superpower.
Given all of these advantages, why wouldn’t anybody record a decision?
Surely, then, an unrecorded decision is an indicator of problems in the underlining process.
that one should look for the presence of schemers who can impose projects on those who should know better
This sentence fragment is a rathole.
Maybe I’ll come back to in a future post. Maybe not.
A segmentation of schemers might be interesting?
that one should also look for powerful external pressures reverberating through the decision-making process — pressures that cannot be resisted and lead to decisions for which there is no real acceptance of responsibility (and are therefore unrecorded)
There is a core relationship between pressure and acceptance of responsibility. Your relationship with that concept depends so much on your relationship with those two concepts. I’ll offer mine.
As a direct consequence of what happened in the past , political scientists, sociologists, and operations researchers alike know better than to call things what they are. Pressure can mean energy , or agenda-setting  or policy learning . Even the word political, in political science, is evasive. All of these words cloak the concept of power. We’re talking about power.
External pressures means power.
And so, somebody standing on the outside of the decision making process may have enough power to cause a decision to occur, but, not have sufficient power to cause real acceptance of responsibility.
This goes to the understanding of the concept of acceptance.
Voss and Raz (2016) gives us the gift of the three forms of yes:
- Yes, I commit.
- Yes, I’ll try. (I intend to fail).
- Yes, screw off.
The distinction between the three is subtle when they’re said, and are especially problematic in cultures that punish commitment and reward duplicitousness. In some cultures, it may be far more advantageous to confess that you disagreed with the strategy and successfully sabotaged it, than having tried to be successful and failed.
Often, in cultures where one cannot be honest by saying ‘no’, it is easier to say ‘yes’, add it to the backlog and then plead that success was never possible in the first place because ambitions exceeded demands.
In this way, a declaration of ‘Yes’ doesn’t mean acceptance. A Promise doesn’t mean acceptance. A categorical pledge doesn’t mean acceptance. Yes, very often, doesn’t mean Yes.
Only acceptance means acceptance.
All of this serves to underline a point that is not stressed enough in the political science literature: decision-making is fundamentally a process for assuming responsibility for a proposed action.
This fragment is self-explanatory. The decision-making process is fundamentally a process for assuming responsibility for a proposed action. It’s the only way to get to a yes that means yes.
And a recorded decision is a great sign that yes really does mean yes.
Conclusion: Your Mileage May Vary
I hope you had fun with this post.
And I hope I’ve offered some intuition for why you should look for unrecorded decisions.
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 Machiavelli, N. (1513). The prince.
 Cohen, M. D., March, J. G., & Olsen, J. P. (1972). A garbage can model of organizational choice. Administrative science quarterly, 1-25.
 Kingdon, J. W. (2001). A model of agenda-setting, with applications. L. Rev. MSU-DCL, 331.
 Bennett, C. J., & Howlett, M. (1992). The lessons of learning: Reconciling theories of policy learning and policy change. Policy sciences, 25(3), 275-294.
 Voss, C., & Raz, T. (2016). Never split the difference: Negotiating as if your life depended on it. Random House.