The Decider chatbot can optimize your decisions and minimize office politics

Leave it to chance?
Leave it to chance?
Image: Reuters/Philip Brown
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When you’re making a decision, you’re actually making two, but one may not be conscious: The first choice you make is how to approach the decision itself.

If you rarely step back to consider the options—such as taking a vote, flipping a coin, or just being autocratic—don’t despair. People have a habit of falling back on what they know, using the same modeling systems to make strategic choices, time and again.

Among some management and leadership researchers, however, the science of decision-making processes, and how variables like time and the size of your group can complicate your deliberations, is an obsession. Now, a new chatbot called The Decider, wants to put a portion of their knowledge in the hands of everyday employees.

For now, The Decider chatbot is only available on Slack, the popular team-messaging platform. Once installed, it “listens” to your team’s conversations and when enough trigger words (like “option” or “need to change”) tell it that you’re mulling something, it jumps in to ask if it can help you choose how to make your decision. Should you agree to let the bot weigh in, you’ll be asked a series of yes/no questions until the The Decider spits out its recommendation for how to proceed.

As it happens, the editorial team at Quartz At Work is trying to decide what office experiment we’d like to tackle next. In the past we’ve tested user manuals for how to work best with our colleagues and committed to a week of Swedish-style coffee breaks, called Fikas, and written about the results. At this point, we’ve come up with a list of ideas for the next experiment and need to select one, so I conferred with an early version of The Decider that’s available online for anyone to sample. Our exchange was short: “Is the decision urgent?” the Decider asked. No. “Is the set of options clear?” Yes. Voila, the choice was made: We should use a democratic vote.

That’s great, but the best feature of The Decider may be the context it provides to explain the system it has selected for you. Should it suggest you ask for consent, you’ll also learn that the concept grew out of the Quaker tradition of seeking consensus and only formalized in the 1970s. (In a consensus, all of the stakeholders are allowed to tweak the solution until everyone agrees that it works. Consent takes less time; all it needs is a “good enough” compromise and no significant objections.)

You’re also given a step-by-step guide to optimizing the selected model, and a list of its attendant benefits and potential pitfalls. When it suggested that my team use a democratic vote, it also warned that the process can be complicated by a “fear of dissent,” which a manager could deal with preemptively. It advised:

Because voting visibly pits one group against another, participants who tend to avoid conflict may remain silent even if they have valuable insights to contribute. Before voting begins and factions have the chance to emerge, ask participants to write down their position and any questions they may have.

Voting can also trigger interoffice bickering, and may encourage people who didn’t back the winning idea to resist participating, The Decider warns. What’s more, if used repeatedly, it can lead to “the tyranny of the majority.” A block develops and minority opinions do not have a fighting chance of ever being heard.

To be sure, your human sense of fairness and your memory of past team decisions are still necessary tools here. If you know your team likes flipping a coin in theory, but always disregards the coin’s answer, you’ll know to ignore The Decider when it suggests the stochastic method (or leaving a decision to randomness). But you may be surprised that the bot sometimes prescribes waiting out a question (“avoidant decision making”), which may not be a style you’d purposefully adopt.

At the very least, The Decider might kick your team out of rut.