All posts in the HBR category

Book Review : Harvard Business Review On Making Smarter Decisions

Published June 21, 2015 by vishalvkale

Harvard Business Review literature and studies stand at the pinnacle of management thought in the world – at least if you consider the popular realm. While there are many other institutions that are competing with Harvard in terms of Research, at least in India Harvard stands all alone in the popular imagination. This is clearly in evidence if you take a look at Indian Book Stores, which routinely sport its HBR series of books on management thought. This is the 2nd HBR I am reviewing; and in this I will attempt a different style, anaylsing each article in short points, as well as underscoring the crying need for quality research in India…

Image result for harvard business review making smarter decisionsThe saddest aspect of this review is that try as I might, I cannot find even one single book – easily accessible  – on Indian Management Thought from Indian Universities, attuned to Indian Realities and Examples, while book stalls are chock full of books from Foreign Universities loaded with theories and examples from an alien market, an alien ground reality and requiring significant local inputs and alterations : some of which are plain inapplicable to Indian Realities. So much so that one of the largest economies in the world, a nation that prides itself on its higher education has not been able to pen many books that are in common acceptance on Management Practice and Thought. That speaks more about the attitudes of the professionals in Management than it does about our Management Colleges. But more of that later on my blog; a book review is not the place for such analysis!

The book in question has a series of articles on the art and science of decision making, attempting to understand the concepts and practices behind decisions, and helping the practicing manager make the optimal decisions :

a.     This article focuses on Decision Making within Organisations, understanding the process and emphasizing a much-needed cautionary tone and balance in Decision Making, powerfully underscoring the point that Decisions are situational, and one should not be too adamant on one a defined path. The primary focus is localization versus centralization, and clarity of roles and responsibilities
b.   However, in my considered view, the above article is applicable only to situations that require or enable objective decisions or are based on objective criteria with easy and extensive data availability and less uncertainty; this is not applicable to Marketing, where decision making can be far more complex than the simplistic model enumerated above

a.     This is an article that emphasizes Management based on Evidence with just the right amount of instinct thrown in, and a process-based approach towards Management : the need of the hour.
b.   It is replete with practical and real-world examples from a variety of situations which make the article one of the best to come from the realm of theory : Universities. Recommended Reading for ALL practicing Managers

a.     Most middle managers, lower management and perhaps even some senior managers are leery of the term “Strategic Planning” – that is a reality, a truism which I can readily relate to. This article looks at the concept of Strategic Planning – and its practical applicability in all aspects of Business. Another top-notch article, and a highly recommended read.
b.   It makes several powerful points : Strategic Planning is a continuous Process; The need for regular reviewing of Business Factors and External Environmental factors more than just meetings and numbers / selling oneself; Emphasising on the need for proper reviews that actually review the scenario rather than point blame; and more
c.     However, the entire focus is on corporate level decisions, whereas it is the local level tactical  decisions that make or break a brand in the market, repeated across the organisation – for example, how you respond to a new and better competitor {compete? ask for inputs from the top? give feedback of internal problems or keep silent? ignore? take short-cuts? Cut price through trade discounts rather than give feedback of superior competition?} Secondly, the straight link between profits and strategic decisions is debatable, as a strategic decision  means much more

a.     This article, in effect, carries on where the previous one left off : and looks at the concept of decision making with relevant data, and trying to beat “Bounded Awareness” – a situation where cognitive blinders prevent a person from seeing the obvious, as it were. A pretty common occurrence as we all well know!
b.   A superb and very practical article, this looks at how Managers ignore the obvious threats that are emerging in the political, regulatory, or market environment; and why this happens. In many ways this is a deep article requiring quiet contemplation, as it touches upon many divisive and harmful habit of the practicing manager – like ethical transgression, focusing on self over the organization, not sharing information, and their combined harmful impact.
c.     The only this is that while the article is needed and useful, and very powerful – the reality is that Top Management ignore real decisions and regular transgressions, which pile up over time to create a Frankenstein!

a.     This is an article that attempts to introduce the relatively new field of Analytics, but, in my opinion, falls slightly short of its chosen task. As it stands, it can be understood by current practitioners-  but to most, it will be Greek and Latin, so to speak. It makes some good points; excellent points even – but overall, it needed a far more practical approach and far more detail
b.   Apart from being vague, it also lacks a functional focus, taking a top-level approach. The need is the reverse : the people who collate data, create information, and make tactical decisions are the ones who need convincing as much as, if not more than the top people. And such an approach may convince the top people, but the middle manager is left with far more questions than answers. It also does not explain analytics, and makes no attempt to differentiate Analytics from prevalent practices
c.     It rightly makes the point that it is the Top Level who has the clout to carry out deep changes; but if you do not convince the middle guy in language he can understand – he or she goes to the top without having an understanding of the concepts of the future. In effect, you are re-inforcing the learning that to survive, do things the way they are done. You need to catch them young!

a.     The piece-de-resistance : an article that focuses on the Brain processes behind decision making – as well as going deep into the instinct, or gut decisions, as well as the connect between Emotions, Experience and Decisions. A must read for everyone in the corporate world!

a.     An article that looks at breaking indecisiveness through the use of intellectual honesty; using social paradigms within an organization : meetings, reviews, etc – engendering honest dialogue; rigorous feedback and follow-through.
b.   It raises several questions in your mind : decisive organizations require candor, openness, informality, closure : but how do these come about in an organization? What are the processes that are conducive to these? How will this change? How to overcome number-focus, internal competition etc?
c.     The problem identification is accurate; so is the framework suggested : but the solution is impractical; lasting and sustainable change is not achieved if you compel  a person – the change has to be from within.

a.     A thought provoking and largely theoretical article on how a manager is mislead due to some psychological traps in his or her mind the focus of this excellent article.That it is theoretical does not mean it does not have incisive learnings : it does.
b.   The traps – which instinctively make sense – provoke deep thought, and leave a lasting learning in your mind; we are talking about giving weightage to the first information, status-quo, sunk-costs wherein past mistakes are repeated as you try to justify past choices rather than learning from them, seeking information that confirms your opinions as opposed to being open, misstating a problem to reflect past decisions steps or opinions or indeed just lacking neutrality, overestimating accuracy of forecasts, being over-cautious, and giving undue weight to recent events.


In conclusion, it can be said that this book or set of articles is a valuable value addition to the practicing manager, requiring deep contemplation and thought, leaving a lasting impression – its lack of Indian Examples notwithstanding. The book also underscores the need for Management Research  to go much deeper into the problem, and not have a top-level focus – without that, the chances of reaching a wider audience than it currently has is close to zero in my opinion. Pity; had it had an India-focus, the learning would have been deeper, more pertinent, as well as having the added impact of making the entire book far more interesting, easy to read and absorb- and it would be certain to appeal to a much larger target market, a much larger potential audience…