7 Decision Making Approaches: EMPIRICIST

E. Forrest Christian Decision-making, Reviews - Articles, Warren Kinston 4 Comments

Empiricists love data. Lots of data.
Empiricists love data. Lots of data.

Warren Kinston and Jimmy Algie posited that there are seven, and only seven, unique mindsets or approaches humans use when making decisions about action. This is conscious decision, not simply unconscious reaction based on stimula-response.I’ve got the full article available, although the quality is wanting. (See [2])

Warren Kinston and Jimmy Algie weren’t a couple of bumblers: Algie had been looking at this since the 1970s and Kinston had, too, albeit from a different angle. Their work together extended Algie’s original work of four approaches and was based on extensive experience consulting with managers and professionals in commerce and medicine, and through many open workshops where the decision methods were taught and tested.

I’m going to be describing each different decision approach over the next few weeks as a I prep for some other work I’m doing.

Each approach has specific mindset and values that make it uniquely appropriate for certain types of problems. Adherents to a particular type (and we are all) believe that their favored approach works in all situations. But it doesn’t.

Decision making approaches can also be seen as “languages of achievement” [1] because it is through them that we act. We make decisions about action.

Many of our disagreements in meetings and even families can be seen as disagreements about how to decide, rather than the action itself.

Also, I will just note here something Warren has pointed out several times: your decision making language seems to be doing the work. If I know your dominant decision approach, I can predict with uncanny accuracy how you will approach the problem and what decisions you will make. It is almost as if we are simply channels for the approach. Knowing more about them can make this not true, so this is worth looking at.

(Let’s be clear here that I am writing up what I think is true. Warren wrote things up quite differently, and I need to translate what I have read and heard into my own words. I am likely introducing some error in my efforts to bring this to a larger audience, so feel free to comment.)

Here’s the first decision making approach.

The Empiricist Decision Making Approach

The empiricist approach believes in certainty, in undeniable facts. It believes that data collection and information are vitally important to make any decision. The organizational cultural stage based in the Empiricist approach is Information Culture. This approach is low on both task and person orientations.

EMPIRICIST

Synonyms:

  • problem-solving
  • descriptive
  • investigative

Keywords

  • problem
  • real problem
  • diagnosis
  • solution
  • facts
  • evidence
  • information systems
  • pilot
  • test
  • records
  • evaluation

In Kinston’s spiral of Strengthening the Management Culture, the growth phase where Empiricist dominates the corporate culture is a late stage and a major milestone. This may explain why so many people have poor feelings about Empiricists: they do their best cultural work when there has already been a great deal of groundwork laid by other decision making approaches. This “information culture” needs to be the cure for unproven nature of the assertions made in the Rationalist phase. Of course, the Empiricist approach is the best approach for certain problems (described below) at any phase of growth.

Empiricist Action Process

Empiricists work by reducing a problem to a manageable size. They then use the data that is available (or collect some more where needed) to define the problem. That information should then point out exactly what the right solution is. They’ll usually want to pilot the solution, and then bring it to scale.

The Empiricist pilot run is a real pilot test: one where if successful you take it to scale. I’ve used the term “pilot” here at times to mean “let’s create a small test to learn what might work and what probably doesn’t”. These are quite different, although both involve small runs. For Empiricists, the pilot is simply a very small scale of the larger solution.

Empiricists believe that what is necessary to solve a problem is a clear understanding of the facts. They pooh-pooh shared values or people’s aspirations, believing that if you just would take a look at the facts as they are, you would come to agreement. With them.

For the most part, Empiricists denigrate theories of any sort, insisting that seeing the facts as they are is all you need.

Disciplines that use the scientific methods rooted in positivist assumptions are dominated by Empiricists because this decision-making approach fits. Software and Information Technology / informatics often dominated by empiricists, and indeed much of that work is well accomplished using the Empiricist decision approach. In these disciplines, the Empiricist mindset can run rampant and show its shadow side. (See Table 1 for examples of how Empiricist values can degenerate.)

Empiricists have clear ideas of “good” vs “evil”, in that clear-headed technical people are “good” and muddy-thinking, touchy-feely magicians like politicians and managers being “evil”. They are quite incapable of seeing the “facts” about opinions or politics. These are things that keep people from following the obvious course of action, made plain by the facts as they are.

In this, they also are an antidote for lots of muddy thinking about the current state of reality. This mindset works very well at solving problems with existing states. In software development, this is the difference between creating something brand new and simply integrating or upgrading a known solution. These two are often confused both by the client and the vendor but should have two entirely different approaches and quite probably different staff.

Because they rely so heavily on data about the current state and the recent past, the Empiricist approach works poorly with ill-defined problems that require a brand new approach.

Empiricists also tend to hate change. The mindset requires a stable present so that trends can be seen from the past. Discontinuous change, such as the introduction of web services in the mid-1990s, overwhelms this approach until enough data can be collected and a trend observed.

Empiricist DM and Empirical Inquiry

It’s important to note that this has been about an approach to decision making and not the process of inquiry. These are related but not the same thing.

Tables

TABLE 1: Values in the Empiricist MODE-PHASE of the SPIRAL of Strengthening the Management Culture (generate in bold and degenerate in italics)
Handling Situations: 
EssenceInformation use
Data accumulation
Desired EffectIncreased certainty
Endless delays
MeansSystematic investigation
Statistical trawling
Handling People: 
ParticipationWide dissemination
Paper deluge
CommunicationLucid presentation
Irrelevance
IndividualizationIndividualized knowledge
Fragmentation
Handling Yourself: 
Personal GrowthDispassionate objectivity
Pedantic arrogance

 

TABLE 2: The Empiricist decision system in schematic outline

Phase1:
Start

Note a problem and reduce it to a manageable size.
Phase 2: ExploreUsing available information define the real problem in
terms of what is meaningful and resolvable.
Phase 3: Develop PossibilitiesObtain facts relevant to the problem or surmised solutions
and pull out implications.
Phase 4: ResolveRecognize the unique best solution and adopt it.
Phase 5: ReiterateTest the solution in a pilot version with full collection
of data.
Phase 6: ImplementPromulgate the solution and expect action.
Phase 7: ReviewControl process and record progressive results. Obtain
evidence whether the problem is solved.
Phase 8: Overcome FailureRevise protocol; or redefine the original problem.

 

TABLE 3: Aspects affecting the choice Empiricist as your decision system
Immediate Applications if:The issue naturally reduces to one or a series of simple problems where the facts determine action. e.g. paying staff regularly.
Preferred Structure of the Issue:Well-structured; well-understood; and as simple as possible.
Involvement of ProtagonistsA narrow range of specific objectives are clear and shared. e.g. in a research group
Value Drive to ActDesire for knowledge about the issue which may be useful.
Unique StrengthsA unique best solution may be found.
Inherent DangersInformation is collected for its own sake. Protagonist’s values and objectives are ignored. Excessively oriented to past rather than to future.
Use may be inappropriate if:Change is rapid in the system or environment. Problems are multiple and interconnected, or unclear. Endemic conflicting objectives are inherent in the issue.

 

REFERENCES

All referenced documents are available via email upon a request in the comments.

  1. Kinston, Warren. 1994.Strengthening the Management Culture. SIGMA Centre, London.
  2. Kinston, W. and Algie, J, 1989, “Seven Distinctive Paths of Decision and Action“,Systems Research, 6:117-132.
  3. Kinston, Warren. 1991. “Decision Systems, Inquiring Systems and a New Framework for Action”. (Submitted toJournal of Applied Systems Analysis but not published.) SIGMA Centre, London.
About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

Comments 4

  1. Forrest,
    It is excellent to be sharing this material. Of the variety of ways of looking at work and decision complexity, the Algie & Kinston insights are extremely valuable.

    Jack Fallow

  2. Post
    Author

    Thanks, Jack. These really opened up my perspectives. The decision making systems tie into several others (notably the systems of Inquiring) so it’s a great place to start.

    For those who don’t know, Jack was the founding chairman of GasForce, an employee-owned company that returned 25x initial buyin to employee shareholders within seven years. Always worth listening to.

    I’ve got a podcast coming of my interview with Jack. Keep you posted on that.

  3. Hi Forrest,

    Yes, I am most interested in getting my brain around these as well. Thanks for synthesizing. I’m looking forward to this post series.

    At some point, I’d like to have a chat about your understanding of Kinston’s Domains, Communication Levels and Work Levels.

    He kindly and patiently spelled it out to me in an email, but I’m having trouble wrapping my simple mind around it!

    Regards,

    Michelle

  4. Post
    Author

    I love talking with Warren partly because I regularly don’t understand things after we’re done. Always lots of unpacking to do after learning the Kinston way!

    We’ll have to spend some time chatting the next time I’m down your way. The financial collapse has meant that my brother sill hasn’t seen his niece.

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