How Do You Make Tough Decisions?

On September 29, the NPLI partnered with Domestic Preparedness on a round table discussion on high stakes decision making held at the Harvard Faculty Club in Cambridge, MA. Participants included numerous NPLI alumni including Geoff Bartlett (Cohort XII) Tufts University; Kathryn Brinsfield (Cohort I), Department of Homeland Security; Bill Christensen (Cohort XI), MA State Police;Joe Duggan (Cohort XII), MA State Police, and Ed Gabriel (Cohort IV), Department of Health and Human Service. Also in attendance were preparedness and response leaders from the American Red Cross, Boston Fire Department, Boston Emergency Medical Services, Boston Properties, FEMA, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other organizations.

Participating NPLI program faculty included discussion moderators Eric McNulty and Rich Serino as well as Eric Goralnick, Suzet McKinney, and Chris Robichaud. Co-hosting from Domestic Preparedness were editor Cathy Feinman and publisher Martin Masiuk. The discussion will be reflected in the upcoming Domestic Preparedness Journal issue on leadership to be published in November.

Among the themes that emerged was the challenge of achieving consistently high quality decision quality in an event when numerous people in different organizations with varying amounts of information are making asynchronous decisions that are likely to have inter-dependencies and intersecting consequences. Opportunities were perceived in finding ways to provide just-in-time decision-making support through informal networks of peers as well as more formal networks. It was also seen as important to give leaders in the feel the latitude to use their judgement within certain broad guidelines, walking the fine line from been overly prescriptive and giving too much leeway.

One of the more enthusiastically received suggestions was to be more rigorous in examining decisions in the after-action review process. It was recommended that delving into why a decision could help develop critical thinking and decision making capacity throughout the preparedness and response enterprise.

Summing up the day, one participant noted, “In the context of [leadership] decision-making, you have to recognize that you aren’t the smartest person in the room. If you think you are, you’re already making a mistake. If someone has experience and expertise, listen. Be inclusive. Recognize your limitations. And if you have to, make the decision and take the consequences.”

The NPLI will publish synthesized notes from the meeting in the Resources section of this site concurrently with the November issue of Domestic Preparedness Journal.