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When I launched my consulting practice in 2017, I was faced with a big decision. Up until then, I'd spent most of my adult life working for arts and culture organizations. Although the seeds of my interests in knowledge production and decision science had been planted some years earlier, I wasn't sure they would grow to their full potential if I continued limiting myself to that domain. And I knew that the longer I stayed in one field, the harder it would be to ever escape, which was a pretty sobering thought for someone with almost two-thirds of my career still ahead of me.
So I chose the opposite extreme. To minimize my chances of ever getting stuck in a rut again, I rebranded myself as a generalist willing to work with just about the widest set of mission-driven clients imaginable: foundations, nonprofits, government agencies, individual donors, impact investors, corporations, and more, across all geographies and every issue/thematic area. Actually pulling this off (which I'm kind of amazed to say I did100% of my income now comes from clients outside of my former field) required me to radically expand my network, and so in 2018 and 2019 I made a point of trying to attend as many conferences and make connections with as many relevant professional communities as possible.
In the midst of doing that, I started to notice something really interesting. Whenever I would attend a networking event, I would have the same conversations about the challenges of evidence use, innovations in organizational learning, and so onbut almost never with the same people. There would be zero overlap between the attendees at the workshop focused on forecasting and the conference focused on futuring. The folks at the behavioral science and policy annual meeting would be completely absent from the briefings on evidence-based policy. The conference for advisors to individual donors had no real ties to the myriad associations of staff at private foundations.
It began to dawn on me that these people from obviously related yet disconnected communities were missing out not only on each other's company, but also on each other's ideas. The simulation geeks had never heard of theory of change. The effective altruists had no exposure to participatory evaluation. The evidence synthesis people didn't talk about scenario planning. It became impossible to avoid the conclusion that much of humanity's creative and intellectual progress on cross-cutting issues like organizational effectiveness was happening in stupid, unnecessary silos, with massive duplication of effort and missed opportunities to share knowledge and spread innovations.
For all those reasons, my ears perked up a few years ago when I learned that 80,000 Hours, an organization that helps people choose a career path based on the impact they can have, had published an issue area profile on the topic of "improving institutional decision-making." It's a mouthful to say, but as a concept I felt that it had the potential to break through the silos. By adopting the somewhat nebulous frame of "institutions," it didn't confine itself to a particular sector or type of organization the way that a term like "governance" or "philanthropy" or "policy" would. And its focus on decision-making could integrate various functional approaches to institutional improvement, since all of those approaches eventually need to show up in the choices an institution makes and the actions it takes.
Over the past year and a half, I've been part of an informal working group aiming to develop improving institutional decision-making as a distinct field of practice. With the institutional failures of the global coronavirus response providing a vivid backdrop for our efforts, we've outlined an ambitious set of projects for 2021. This issue of TBD will be devoted to sharing some of that work so far.

What is "improving institutional decision-making"?

Decision-making at major institutions is shaped by a complex web of individual judgments, value systems, organizational structures and routines, leadership behaviors, incentives, social influences, and external conditions. One of the reasons why I believe our professional silos hold us back is because they discourage us from engaging with these broader systems in a holistic way. In practice, improving institutional decision-making could mean anything from developing strategies that are based on evidence, to elevating values around equity and stakeholder engagement, to stronger norms against corruption, to pushing the frontiers of excellence in operations and logistics. In order to understand what sorts of interventions make sense in a particular situation, we need to understand more deeply how all of these factors interrelate.

In an article posted late last year, a group of us tried to place some more structure and rigor around these ideas, especially considering their interdisciplinary nature.

What are the most important institutions in the world?

Do some institutions simply have orders of magnitude more influence over global outcomes than others? And is it realistic to think that their decisions could be guided toward serving the common good? Although I'm sure many of us have intuitions about the answers to these questions, our working group is attempting to develop a more formal rubric for evaluating the potential benefits and risks of strategies to improve the functioning of specific institutions.

I expect this will be one of the most intellectually challenging projects I've ever participated in, and I'm excited that I'll be personally spending a fair bit of time on it over the next few months. If you'd like to share your thoughts on an early draft of the framework or otherwise be involved in the effort, please let me know by responding to this email! We are also still taking volunteers for the
other activities on our list for this year, and you can sign up for those here.

Help us define the scope of IIDM!

Initiatives and scholarship related to improving institutional decision-making live under many different names, including decision analysisorganizational behavioroperations researchmanagement sciencestrategic learningpolicy analysischange managementknowledge management, and more. Each of these schools of thought and communities of practice have distinct intellectual histories which strongly shape their present-day spheres of influence. For example, "organizational behavior" are two words that rarely appear together outside of a university setting, while "strategic learning" is primarily a term of art among large staffed private foundations. 

Thanks to these interdisciplinary roots, it's not surprising that different people have different ideas about what the words "improving institutional decision-making" mean or should mean in practice. We've therefore put together a survey to help us gauge the diversity of perspectives among people interested in the topic and who themselves work within institutions. You’ll be presented with a list of topics and asked to rate how “in scope” you consider them to be. Depending on how familiar you are with the topics, we expect the survey will take you 10-25 minutes to complete, and responses will be accepted through Wednesday, April 28.

That's all for now!

If you enjoyed this edition of TBD, please consider forwarding it to a friend. It's easy to sign up here. See you next time!

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