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19th Amendment: Lessons in Decision-Making

Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of 19th Amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote. Two weeks ago, author Elaine Weiss was at the Harvard Book Store giving a talk on her book, The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote. She outlined the amazing story of how this debate unfolded over several decades, with a handful of countries (i.e., England, Finland, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, Iceland) starting the wave around 1916, culminating in a dramatic decision and victory for the American Suffrage Movement four years later.

Weiss provides context that is central to understanding this decision and the various issues that impacted the debate. For example, she explained that World War I just ended, there was a presidential election, and America was grappling with its global role (i.e., isolationism vs proactive global leader). There were debates raging on several major topics (i.e., labor, immigration, inequality, race) and the country was fraught with change and turmoil.

Not surprisingly, there were many points of view on these issues, and on the core issue/decision of whether women should have the right to vote. Weiss shows that some of the strongest opposition came from powerful and well-organized women’s groups. Needless-to-say, the arguments in overall opposition (e.g., intellectual/emotional capacity, threats to family/culture stability, male emasculation) have no merit given our modern understanding.

I’d like to think that if I was around back in 1920, I would have acted and voted in what history has now clearly shown to be the right decision, but of course, how we would have voted back then is unknowable. I would love to be able to talk to people who were adults in 1920 and ask them what their position was on the issue. The country was divided so if I asked enough people, we would easily find many who were not in favor of the amendment. I wonder what they would say now with the passage of time. I wonder if they would say they were wrong back then. It would be fascinating to understand how their view changed over time and what they attributed that to; what was their original rationale/argument and how did that change? Did they fully appreciate and critically self-evaluate the underlying assumptions that were likely foundational to their view, and to what extent were they clear-eyed and owning those assumptions?

The 19th Amendment decision and its historical context is a dramatic way to illustrate two key elements of high-quality decision making. In my work, I help clients make important business decisions. For example, how to evolve segments to maintain or accelerate growth, how to reshape a sales motion or a GTM model given market shifts, how to best structure an organization or a function, or which capabilities are most important to the success of a company. The list goes on, but there are two key points I’d like to make:

1. We make the best possible decisions when a process is deployed. A good process to leverage when making important decisions; a methodology with the right level of rigor so that key criteria and assumptions are surfaced and outlined. A method based on a solid understanding of the common cognitive processing errors/biases that can undermine good decision making, and that is also anchored to important principles and techniques necessary to make high-quality decisions that lead to better outcomes.

2. Self-awareness can impact the quality of decision-making. It’s been noted for thousands of years that self-awareness is important, and this is certainly true for decision making quality. Most complex and consequential decisions are made by a collective body. Although these types of business decisions are sometimes made in isolation by a single person, they are never executed in isolation. The more we can appreciate our role in the process of individual and collective decision making, the greater the likelihood we make good decisions that lead to the best outcomes. A process that allows for this self-evaluation can help individuals pinpoint assumptions and personal perspectives that may impact how the issue is understood, framed, debated, and ultimately decided.

I work with businesses and leaders who must make strategic choices. In my experience, and consistent with the research, it has become clear that simply deploying a good process can have a significant impact on quality decisions and outcomes. Most of us don’t make decisions with the implications for society like the one made back in 1920, and most of us are not personally tested like those who were responsible to cast that vote. However, if your organization is grappling with big decisions, or you generally want to improve the ability to make good decisions, a good process can make a big difference. We all hope to be on the right side of history, and when making important decisions in real time, we don’t have the benefit of hindsight and all that will be learned in time.

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