At the heart of the decision-making process

How do you mobilize emotional engagement? How can your business adapt to the necessity of new, user-centered approaches? And how can our organizations meet the needs of real people

Answering these questions with bold statements is easy, but there are large consequences for the way businesses make decisions if you want to put actions behind your words. What is necessary is a shift from quantitative and rational decision-making to qualitative descriptions of feelings and motivations.

A decision-making process needs to be rational

I recently helped a large Danish company through an innovation process. A part of the assignment was to prepare our user-insights and recommendations in a way so that the senior management could make the decision on whether or not to move forward with the innovation process – something that would entail substantial financial investments. Over the course of this process, it became very clear that large organizations are hesitant to make decisions on the basis of qualitative data and behavioral insights. Since the age of industrialization, the decision-making processes of businesses have been centered on making rational and logical decisions by examining consequences and addressing risk through quantifiable data.

It has thus become natural to expect that one of the most important skills of a senior manager is that they are able to remain rational and logical, and that they can reduce complexities in a chaotic world.

Stories of conflicting emotions

I was part of a work group, and in this work group, we built our recommendations on the basis of ethnographic analysis of peoples’ lives. We would discuss quality of life, the conflicting feelings of our users, emotional drivers and barriers – in short, aspects of what it means to be human. These are phenomena that cannot be quantified, that cannot be put into logical arguments, and that have a degree of complexity that cannot be reduced without rendering them pointless. But we were touching on something important – a comprehensive and acutely felt need for the business to do something different in order to create value for their users.

Within the workgroup, we discussed how to make these qualitative insights palatable for the senior management. They were accustomed to a completely different kind of knowledge – knowledge based on a quantitative analysis of business cases. Senior executives are often well versed in acting within a rational, economic system where numbers describe probabilities and opportunities, and where risk can be measured. To make decisions on the basis of something as unquantifiable as the motivations of human behavior seems next to impossible. The management structure as well as the business itself had been built on a paradigm completely foreign to the idea of handling soft data such as emotions, identities, and the individual creation of meaning.

In the work group, we were now in possession of insights with potential value to the business. These insights could prove profitable in the long run, but because they could not be communicated in a quantifiable manner, our group was left with a problem. However, we did not doubt the truth of our findings – after all, the members of the group had themselves experienced and recognized the challenges of the users.

Does senior management lack heart?

I am currently inspired by Gary Hamel, who in his book The Future of Management captures the above situation well:

“Sit in on a typical management meeting – to discuss strategy, budgets, employees, or anything else – and not only will you observe a distinct lack of right-brain thinking, you’ll also hear virtually nothing that suggests the participants have hearts. Beauty. Truth. Love. Service. Wisdom. Justice. Freedom. Compassion. These are the moral imperatives that have aroused human beings to extraordinary accomplishments down through the ages.”

Hamel makes two important points here. Firstly, he points out that typical managers lack “heart” – meaning that they are good at thinking but lack the capacity to communicate their feelings and engage their heart. Secondly, he shows that it is exactly these qualities and skills connected to the heart that are the driving force behind extraordinary human achievements. Consequently, it is necessary for a manager to be able to understand the world through his or her heart, as well as being able to speak to the hearts of the world – the hearts of clients, employees, and stakeholders.

An emerging openness

Fortunately, many businesses are starting to wake up. In my line of work, I meet managers from large organizations and businesses on a weekly basis. I experience great trust and openness, but also uncertainty about how to incorporate emotional perspectives into decision-making. That is to ask, how do we give the heart a permanent place in the decision-making process?

I believe that it takes a drastic change in the way most businesses make decisions. Specifically, this means postponing the estimation of markets and business cases to a point far later in the innovation process. We need to make room for understanding the user and the value we as a company have the potential to create before we are forced to put a price tag on said potential.

“We are a user-centered business”

Many businesses pride themselves on being user-centered, but few actually manage to put this into practice. For me, being user-centered means that the most important internal deliberations are about the costumers and their lives, and not about the product, the market, or the business cases.

If our deliberations are centered on how to create value for the user and not on ourselves, we will automatically start to talk about what I consider to be the most important of all; the identity and emotions of people and how we create meaning in our lives.

Formulating a new decision-making rationale

In our attempt to create a new basis for decision-making that would be taken seriously by the senior management, we in the work group did two seemingly small but very effective things:

1) We produced a presentation that challenged the traditional, constraining procedure and design template of the company. In our presentation, instead of bullets and graphs, we focused on conveying the emotions we had witnessed in the field, and the lives we had come to know in the living rooms of our respondents. We told these stories using a myriad of photos and quotes, and we produced a 3-minute film portraying the life-worlds of real people, focusing on the situations that were of particular importance to our recommendations. This gave the senior management an emotional understanding. Suddenly, they could feel that what we said was important.

2) We used the company’s own mission statement. In it, it was stated how the company should do business centered on the users. We presented this as a somewhat provocative reminder of the fact that a deep understanding of the behavior, needs, and aspirations of the user is exactly at the heart of what it means to be user-centered.

“Civil disobedience”

It takes courage to hold a company and its bosses to their claims of being user-centered. We need to dare to take a stand and insist that value is something that is created in the meeting between the products and the users of said product. This is the reason why we need a decision-making process that is based on insights into the life-worlds of the user. This requires an acceptance of the fact that these cannot always be quantified and packed into neat and simple answers.

It also means that we have to show a certain amount of “civil disobedience”, that we will not care about the traditional procedures and templates, that we revolt against the demand for quantitative projections and estimations, and that we create stories that strike the senior management in the gut rather than in the head. Nothing is more effective than engaging peoples’ feelings. In the advertising industry, it has long been known that the underlying rationale behind your decision-making has to speak to the emotions. The advertising industry has refined this for decades, and one of their main tools is storytelling. Learning from this, we need to work on the communication relating to the decision-making rationales that we produce. We have to convey and elicit emotions. We need to work with the language and learn from the way journalists write, utilizing an active language filled with stories, quotes, pictures, and films from the lives of the users.

This challenges the decision-making processes as well as the decision-makers. They will have to make decisions using that part of their body where the emotions are located. The new CEO is someone who is in contact with his or her emotions and who dares to trust what feels right.

If we manage this, I believe that we can revolutionize the way companies do business, bringing the heart into the center of decision-making – something I believe will benefit everyone, both company and user.