Group Decision-Making

We recently had a question about our suggested approach to group decision-making. We thought that our response might be of interest to our community.

The participants that come into complex decision brainstorming session, are told that a rational or best choice is that choice that best meets the objectives and, in turn, the collection of objectives should be chosen in order to optimize the decision to achieve the goal statement that sits at the top of the decision hierarchy. So every complex process starts building their decision hierarchy (ideally) from the top down.

Thomas Saaty was funded to come up with a way by which he could get scientists and lawyers to stick to a defined process to work through the tradeoffs of various weapon systems in order to overcome the difficulties of communication. It was a huge issue. So Saaty was motivated to create a simple process for ordinary people to attack very complex problems. His son told me that AHP focuses on the achievement of business objectives based on this assumption; “A rational decision is one which best achieves the multitude of objectives of the decision makers. The key is to focus on objectives, rather than alternatives, criteria or attributes. (unlike Bazerman’s econometric decision-making process listed below) with some other references…

Experimental evidence has shown that the tradeoff process is a poorly understood aspect of decision-making and the more objectives, the more complex the decision.


R.L. Cook and K.R. Hammond, “Interpersonal Learning and Interpersonal Conflict Resolution in Decision-Making Groups” in Improving Group Decision Making in Oranizations; Approaches from Theory and Research, New York: Academic Press, 1982), P.10


Max Bazerman points out that the economist’s model of the rationality assumes that decision-makers following the logical steps with perfect judgment:

  1.  Perfectly defining the problem
  2. Knowing all relevant information
  3. Identifying all criteria
  4. Accurately weighting all the criteria according to his or her goals.
  5.  Accurately assessing each alternative on each criterion
  6. Accurately calculating and choosing the alternative with the highest value


Bazerman, Max H. Judgement in Managerial Decision Making, John Wiley & Sons, 1986


The objectives get more specific as we proceed downwards, node by node, through the decision-making hierarchy. The level of granularity ultimately comes down to the last node which is where the specific alternatives are categorized for prioritization of implementation, acquisition, make or buy, etc.

But what I have found is missed by most people because it’s so simple. This is the use of the hierarchy to order a decision.

Herbert Simon, father of artificial intelligence and Nobel laureate believes that humans can best deal with complexity as follows:

“Large organizations are almost universally hierarchical in structure. That is to say: they are divided into units which are subdivided into smaller units, which are, in turn subdivided and so on. Hierarchical subdivision is not a characteristic that is peculiar to human organizations. It is common to virtually all complex systems of which we have knowledge. The near universality of hierarchy in the composition of complex systems suggest that there is something fundamental in this structural principle that goes beyond the peculiarities of human organization. An organization will tend to assume hierarchical form whenever the task environment is complex relative to the problem-solving and communicating powers of the organization members and their tools. Hierarchy is the adaptive form for finite intelligence to assume in the face of complexity.”


Simon, Hertbert A., “The New Science of Management Decision”, Harper & Brothers, New York, NY, 1960

In his book on “Hierarchical Structures” L.L. Whyte expressed this thought:

“The immense scope of hierarchical classification is clear. It is the most powerful method of classification used by the human brain-mind in ordering experience, observations, entities and information. The use of hierarchical ordering must be as old as human thought, conscious and unconscious.”


LL Whyte, Hierarchical Structures, American Elsevier, New York, NY, 1969