Decision making in the New Normal

In these COVID-19 times, anxiety and fear are freezing our ability to respond to any threats or opportunities in our business environment. 

We are in surviving times where our reptilian brain takes over rationality. Stopping the engine instead of moving forward sounds to be the only action feasible. Brain and guts, reflection and action are disconnected. In cognitive psychology, that phenomenon is called a reverse locked-in syndrome where the brain commands to fight the fire without any possibility to start fire prevention until your company becomes an empty nutshell unable to respond to any new opportunities.

These lines intend to explain how leaders can start leading again walking slowly through the fog until they find the light for the sake of their company, their people and themselves.

MBA students have learnt how to analyze a situation and use best practices to set up an action plan for execution. This way of working is linear and applies the sense, analyze and respond approach. Usually, decision making follows a genuine process:

  1. Analyze the situation
  2. Prioritize
  3. Select option

Usually, the decision-making process is a structured linear process with clear cause and effect relationships. Tools like 4W1H, Fishbone Diagram or the Kepner Tregoe method are helpful.

The New Normal or also known as VUCA situation or complex system have a completely different manner to address Problem Solving and Decision Making. This situation is unknown, not documented and you can’t apply good practices. 

In systems thinking, we call this situation unstructured where cause and effects are decoupled and each solution is unique. In this context, you are looking for collective problem-solving. The aim is not to analyse the whole problem but it is to probe, sense and respond with tiny options to experiment. Those options allow continuing moving forward in a much slower pace. Keeping the organization moving prevents crystallisation and locked-in.

This is how the agile way of working tackled problems in the last twenty years. The idea of experimenting early, falling faster, creates a better understanding of the problem while getting sooner the necessary data.

From a team dynamics perspective, we assume that the solution is already known in the company and we have to create the conditions to test the hidden options. 


 In this context, you are making decisions on options, a collection of options. Some techniques like MosCow and WSJF are leading to prioritizing those options and are helping to rationalise instinctive decisions:

  • MoSCoW: or must have, should have, could have and won’t have prioritization
  • WSJF: or weighted shortest job first (D. Reinertsen) is based on two parameters Cost of Delay and Duration

These techniques are quite simple if you are addressing one single problem. What is happening is you have several projects, problems, multiple teams, multiple locations? You can use the same approach but at a much higher level in your corporate portfolio:


Pr. Dr Peter Kruse was an expert in complex systems theories. He explained that the very nature of complexity is in decision making. In complex systems, you will find ambivalent situations where techniques might valid all options even those being contradictory. The only known way of getting away from such confusion is to trust your limbic system or your instinct.

Trusting your instinct sounds not scientific at all but this is the way where the human being is making the difference with a machine: a human brain can take decisions even not knowing all the details of a particular situation.

To mitigate the risk of bad decision making, the Agile world is using two cognitive approaches:

  • collective decision making: the way of working is negotiation based where all the involved parts have an acceptable win.
  • And iterative decision making: the deal, result of that negotiation is valid during a limited time until the collective gathers again for a new deal. This empirical approach is helping about a stocked situation allowing pivoting or persevering.

As a conclusion, decision-making process in the New Normal is collective and collaborative. The collective is iterating shortly testing all the options until the hidden one emerges from that dynamic.

And once the storm is passed, you can roll back to a more traditional decision-making process.

In November 2020, the Requisite Agility Group and I will start a collection of workshops helping you through decision making processes in VUCA Times.

Pierre E. Neis

Author of “The New Normal: AO concepts and patterns of 21-st century agile organizations”

Published by PierreENeis

Certified Agile Coach & Trainer, Organization Developer & Advisor Author of AO

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