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The Decision Loom: A Book with a Rich Tapestry of Experience

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 8, 2012

With more than five decades of work in market research, government service, political campaigns and advising Fortune 500 companies, Vincent Barabba has developed a keen understanding of academic theory and practice, and a philosophical bent that combines business rigor with an appreciation of stories, poetry and the enigmas of human interaction. His book The Decision Loom: A Design for Interactive Decision Making in Organizations offers engaging and detailed suggestions for the many ways systems thinking, design thinking and complexity theory can be understood and used to reach solutions that work in an unpredictable ever-changing world. He takes inspiration from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s 1941 poem "Huntsman, What Quarry?", which includes the lines, "Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill / Is daily spun; but there exists no loom / To weave it into fabric.”

The books describe how Barabba and his colleagues teased out previously unrecognized voter sentiments in campaigns in California, Michigan and Georgia in the 1960s and 1970s. He was appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents to direct the U.S. Census Bureau. He is commissioner of the California citizens Redistricting Commission, and chair of The State of the USA, a nonprofit that provides social and economic data to the public. Barabba has worked for such corporate giants as Xerox, Eastman Kodak, and General Motors, where he helped the company get the OnStar communication system in all GM cars and develop MyProductAdvisor, an innovative tool allowing customers to build a trusting relationship with GM through an unbiased independent intermediary. Initially considered expensive and risky, the book notes, OnStar has responded to nearly 200,000 vehicle crashes, and provided roadside assistance to three million people. Its market value was estimated in 2009 at between $2 and $4 billion, a good return on the $150 million option GM executives placed in 1996. MyProductAdvisor and OnStar were the result of good information and knowledge combined to permit their use for good decisions. But sometimes abstract business models and past experience can get in the way of using information and knowledge to reach the best decisions. For example, Eastman Kodak chose to use digital technology to improve its earlier silver halide based photography rather than replace it. As a result, other companies forged ahead with digital technology.

In the first part of the book, Barabba focuses on lessons learned in his career. He is specific about what worked and what didn’t, and honest in searching for his own biases. His stories are carefully documented, and include the insights of a wide range of scholars, including Everett Rogers, Peter Drucker, Russell Ackoff, Ian Mitroff, and C.K. Prahalad. He describes lessons learned, and advocates "weaving together the threads of imagination and knowledge” in ways that foster constructive interaction.

Barabba describes four capacities an organization needs for good decision making processes:

  • Having an enterprising mindset that is open to change
  • Thinking and acting holistically
  • Being able to adapt the business design to changing conditions
  • Making decisions interactively using a variety of methods

He offers a sketch of a decision loom - but it’s not a prescription. Barabba emphasizes that a decision loom is a system of interacting parts, and that leaders who want to think about the way their organizations make decisions need to adapt the ideas to their specific goals and environments. He even suggests organizations might want to give it a different name. He concludes this provocative work with six questions concerning attitudes toward change, and the potential impact of change. "I am providing questions and not answers,” he writes, "because relevant answers to these questions must reflect conditions and characteristics of the enterprise in which you are attempting to cause change.”

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