Four Questions for David Garvin and Michael Roberto

by Martha Lagace

Harvard Business School professors David A. Garvin and Michael A. Roberto fielded questions about their article in an email interview with HBS Working Knowledge senior editor Martha Lagace. Garvin and Roberto discuss the "inquiry" process of decision making, which is another way to describe collaborative problem-solving. The "advocacy" process they mention is more of a contest among multiple points of view.

Lagace: What leaders come to mind as people who use or have used the inquiry process to great advantage?

Garvin and Roberto: Harvey Golub of American Express, Bob Galvin of Motorola, Jack Welch of G.E., Andy Grove of Intel, and Chuck Knight of Emerson Electric all used inquiry processes extremely effectively. All were CEOs who led their companies through long periods of growth and profitability.

Q: You present a "litmus test" that leaders could use to assess the decision-making process at their companies. How often should leaders do such self-assessment?

A: They should use the litmus test—in real time—as they wrestle with all major strategic decisions. This is not as often as it sounds, since major strategic decisions (a large-scale merger or alliance, a restructuring, or entry into a new market or product category) arise relatively infrequently.

Q: Is there a place for the advocacy (or "contest") approach in real time and in some situations?

A: There's nothing inherently wrong with advocacy. Problems arise, however, when power is unequally distributed among the participants, when information is unequally distributed, and when there are no clear rules of engagement—especially about how the final decision will be made.

Unfortunately, in many senior teams these conditions are common. When they are not, advocacy can be an effective approach to decision making. It does, after all, work exceedingly well in our court system, where both sides are represented by skilled attorneys, discovery proceedings unearth common information and evidence, and deliberations are ultimately decided by a judge, jury, or tribunal.

Q: You write in the article that the inquiry approach, which you prefer, doesn't come easily or naturally to most people. How can people make inquiry their main method of decision making?

A: The best recommendation is to work hard to raise awareness. We suggest two routes: after-the-fact reflection and real-time diagnosis. Executives can review a past, flawed decision and try to understand where they deviated from an inquiry approach.

Alternatively, they can use the litmus tests to assess themselves at critical junctures during the decision-making process. Have they, for example, generated multiple alternatives? Are they locking in too quickly to a commonly-shared view, without hearing the voices of dissent? This can be done individually or, even more effectively, as a team.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.