#251 from R&D
Innovator Volume 5, Number 12
Culture of Decision-Making
O’Boyle is senior analyst with Cultural Studies & Analysis,
a think tank in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which consults on
problem definition, value perception and cultural effects to
corporations and institutions.
Phone (215) 413-9041.
Every of us, at
some point in our lives, makes perfectly non-logical decisions
that don’t turn out as we expect.
Before we can understand why we make bad decisions, we have
to understand how people
make decisions, and the hidden cultural assumptions that influence
our decision-making process.
A recent market
survey of U.S. automobile buying patterns by J. D. Power &
Associates revealed that more than one-third of all male car
buyers deliberately stopped at the dealership when it was closed
to “spy” on the cars when no one else was around.
Think about it.
How much useful information can a potential car-buyer get
through a display window or a chain-link fence?
Not much, if the answer to why people choose one car over
another is rooted in “facts” about handling or miles per
gallon. Those are the
traditional features car dealers tout; but to the customer, they
are assumed—significant only in their absence.
In the U.S., cars
are not selected merely as transportation. If they were everyone would buy by price, and the most
inexpensive would be the market leader.
Instead, we choose cars on the basis of projection:
how well they reflect the values
we feel are important—to others and to ourselves.
What messages does this car project?
Does it project a forward-looking image?
An image of freedom and mobility?
Does it say conservative and powerful, or youthful and
adventurous? Does it
project an aura of success? These
are values that are central to U.S. culture.
may need to project different values:
stability, conformity, precision, endurance, security,
reliability, tradition or established power.
They may also share values with Americans, but rank them by
a different priority. But
no matter what values they select, the car of their choice must
clearly reflect them in its design, and our human brains perceive
that reflection most clearly without a salesman clouding the image
with facts and figures.
About the Facts?
engineers, scientists and other specialists of any culture base
their decisions as much as possible on Process Logic—the
systematic evaluation of quantifiable facts.
When they are not practicing their professions, they most
likely use facts the way we all do—to confirm choices we have already
made. In our
day-to-day life, facts are validation, coming at the end of the
decision-making process, not at the beginning.
humans make very few major decisions by drawing up a checklist of
positive and negative attributes.
We don’t do it for the cars we drive, the friends we
choose, the house we buy, or the person we marry—we don’t even
do it when we decide which profession we should pursue—even
those like engineering and science, that rely heavily on the
dispassionate evaluation of quantifiable facts.
In our daily
lives, we make very few decisions using Process Logic.
Instead, we use Cultural Logic. Our
brain constantly monitors input from our senses, matching them for
patterns similar to those which the collective experience of the
group tells us will meet our needs.
That’s why we gravitate towards neighborhoods of people
who look and behave like us, and prefer new music that sounds like
the music of our youth.
We do this
because it works—most of the time.
Indeed, we couldn’t function at all if we had to analyze
every decision as if it were a new situation.
We simply wouldn’t have the time.
Cultural Logic has been honed over a thousand centuries of
human evolution, enabling us to instantly assess new situations as
either potentially dangerous or desirable.
depends on our almost instantaneous ability to unconsciously
recognize patterns of values, which are broad cultural tendencies
to prefer one state of affairs over another.
For instance, in the U.S., self-reliance is preferred over
dependence, and mobility over ties to one place.
values operate at an invisible level, so basic to our sense of
self that we assume they are shared by all human beings.
So fundamental are these cultural imperatives that contact
between people with differing cultural value systems is often
marked by confusion, frustration, and even hostility.
At the most obvious level, people brought up in the U.S.
have difficulty understanding those who prefer identity as a group
rather than as an individual, while Japanese find it unsettling to
deal with U.S. companies whose policies change as management
Americans consider the Dutch unassertive in their business
approach, while the Dutch consider the standard American business
résumé to be so boastful as to be unreliable.
corporations spend millions on cross-cultural training, so the
root of this confusion isn’t that individuals are unschooled in
the customs and behaviors of other countries.
The difficulty lies in the fact that, as specific cultures
evolved to meet the needs of particular environments, each group
developed a style of
thinking that affected both their perception of a situation and
the steps they take to deal with it.
Most people recognize that other cultures do things in
different ways, and can adapt their interpersonal skills to
accommodate to these customs, but it’s extremely difficult for
even the most well-schooled to think like another culture.
Most people, in
fact, don’t really understand the mental operating systems of their
own culture. In
the U.S., much has been written on the need for creating a
successful corporate vision, and nearly all of it is based on the
assumption that vision is something personal—conceived
by a lone “visionary” and wrestled into being by sheer force
of will. In this
cultural set, the status quo is the enemy.
In cooperative cultures such as Japan and The Netherlands,
the status quo, while improvable, doesn’t represent the forces
of reaction, but the goals of all social effort and, therefore,
isn’t something to be discarded lightly.
values identified with leadership are culturally attuned.
In the U.S., a visionary leader need only line up the votes
of his board of directors or his political allies in order to
implement his personal vision.
But it would be a rare Japanese CEO who would dream of
acting without consensus from middle management on up.
But while cultures can have diametrically opposed values,
it is vital to remember that these values are never
random. They are the
products of culture, the complex adaptive system the brain uses to
help meet universal needs within a specific environment.
Culture is a
communications system. Humans
need constant sensory feedback in order to function. Just as we may know
our parents love us, but still need to experience consistent
patterns of behavior that reinforce that belief, our Cultural
Logic database is constantly being reinforced by our environment.
Yet, because this system operates at an unconscious level,
it is not necessary to move outside your own national boundaries
in order to misread cultural assumptions by mistaking the
evocation for the value.
resisted making smaller, more fuel-efficient cars for years
because they “knew” that “Americans prefer big cars.”
What Americans preferred, as the Volkswagen beetle and
Japanese imports proved, was mobility—which in Cultural Logic
terms translated into “Freedom.”
Making cars smaller and less costly to operate actually
sent cultural cues signaling an increase in personal freedom, such as more miles covered for the
same cost and more responsive steering and maneuverability giving
the driver an enhanced sense of control.
Customers, in other words, don’t buy products, they buy values.
are most often made in environments that don’t function as we
are trained to expect. For
decades, American business schools have turned out marketing
experts who are adept at managing the myriad details necessary to
mass market products, but use only Process Logic to determine how
people find value in those products.
This leads to a high and costly failure rate.
In the U.S., 90% of all new product advertising fails,
despite being “market tested” in advance with process-logic
consumer surveys and focus groups, for the simple reason that
people make decisions in a cultural context, not a “logical”
one. As former
Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca observed, “Market research never
told us to create a mini-van.”
In order to
operate successfully within any business environment, it’s
essential to understand the values that drive the culture of that
with an “elite” identity, such as art museums, attract staff
members comfortable with the values of that subculture—and who
have great difficulty in designing exhibits with values that
attract the non-elite mass audience.
Process-oriented companies often focus on different values
than their customers—and good products go unsold as a result.
expectations and assumptions which, in turn, shape both the
perception of a problem, and the direction necessary to solve it.
Most problem-solving models start with “Define the
problem,” which assumes a logic base of mutually-shared and
consistent sets of assumptions.
This is why so many decisions seem to be made by using the
“Ready, Fire, Aim” system.
The first step in
decision-making process should not be “Define the problem” but
“Define the operating assumptions.”
This is the “ready” stage of the “Ready, Aim, Fire”
sequence, and the one most essential to putting your decisions on