top of page

Judgement Calls - Book Review

4 January 2021
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

"Judgment Calls: 12 Stories of Big Decisions" is a compelling book co-authored by Thomas Davenport and Brook Manville, published in 2012. The inspiration behind this book came to life during a lunch meeting between Davenport, a highly esteemed figure in the world of knowledge management, and his partner in the influential book "Working Knowledge," Larry Prusak. During their meeting, they pondered the question: "What lies ahead for performance advancement in organizations, given the abundance of existing knowledge and information?" The result of their contemplation led them to believe that delving deeper into the realm of decision-making and sharing their insights would be the perfect course of action.


Despite various circumstances preventing Prusak from actively participating in the writing process, his role in initiating and providing the book's introduction, authored by him, was indispensable.


The book unfolds the concept of decision-making culture in organizations, emphasizing structured processes, data-driven decisions, technological support, and, above all, fostering extensive collaboration throughout the decision-making journey. Illustrated through compelling stories, each chapter presents an individual who has made a profound and critical decision within a real organization. In most instances, these decisions sparked the development of a decision-making culture that transcends traditional practices.


The book conveys essential messages that can reshape decision-making paradigms in any organization:

• Nurturing a culture of sharing is vital, transcending the implementation of new processes.

• Organizational values form a sturdy foundation for a well-grounded decision-making process.

• Leveraging data, information, knowledge, and technology elevates the quality of decisions.

• Identifying needs and opportunities marks the critical initial step to successful decision-making.

• Accomplishing successful decisions requires deliberate efforts and investments, going beyond mere coincidence over time.

• Mastering the art of prioritization is essential for effective decision-making.

• Embracing change with anticipation and skillful management is crucial for organizational progress.

• Cultivating and sustaining a culture of organizational decision-making necessitates continuous practice and diligent maintenance.

• Effective leadership plays a pivotal role in steering the course of decisions.


Furthermore, it is essential to acknowledge that variations can exist between organizations. As a characteristic of any Davenport book, "Judgment Calls" catalyzes stimulating thoughts and provides valuable insights for continuous learning. It unquestionably merits avid readership and exploration by those seeking to enhance their understanding of decision-making dynamics.


The various stories in the book have led to several main courses of action. Beyond the recurring messages, each story provides a unique and emphasized insight:



Organization: NASA - United States Space Organization

The Significant Decision:

The pivotal question was whether the Discovery Spacecraft should be launched on mission STS-119.


Decision Process:

This critical decision went through a sequence of one postponement, followed by further considerations.


Modes of Action:

- Extensive meetings were conducted with all 150 officials directly participating in the decision-making process.

- To boost problem-solving potential, a strategic approach involved overlapping responsibilities and drawing insights from diverse fields of knowledge.

- Dedicated work teams were established to streamline tasks, gather relevant information, and prepare comprehensive data for decision-making.

- Nurturing a culture of openness within management became essential, fostering an environment that embraced uncertainty and faced uncomfortable truths with courage.

- The decision-making process itself was utilized as a powerful problem-solving tool throughout.

- Inclusivity played a central role, with surveys conducted to gather input from partners and stakeholders, valuing their perspectives beyond mere information gathering for managerial decisions.


Organization: WGB Homes

Description: A family-owned company engaged in land acquisition, house construction, and sale projects.


The Significant Decision:

The company faced the challenge of selling a home that failed to attract buyers.


Decision Approach:

WGB Homes strategically chose to focus solely on the external outline of the house while deferring interior decisions until after the sale progressed. This approach aimed to broaden the pool of potential buyers and generate greater interest.


Modes of Action:

- Despite the manager's confidence in his abilities and decisions, the team actively participated in the decision-making process, leveraging their valuable insights and experiences. The manager's final decision was made collaboratively with the team.

- To create flexibility and explore diverse possibilities, the decision process was transformed from a rigid structure to a more adaptable approach. Some decisions were made in the present, while others were thoughtfully deferred to the future.

- To promote efficient decision-making, the company implemented a planning system that preserved past decisions, allowing for review and adaptation in future cases. This fostered a continuous learning process and enabled the company to optimize its strategies based on past experiences.


Organization: McKinsey

Description: A strategic consulting company.


The Significant Decision:

McKinsey faced the challenge of significant growth while encountering a shortage of candidates from traditional recruitment sources.


The Decision:

To address this challenge, McKinsey made a groundbreaking decision. Alongside hiring outstanding MBA graduates from prestigious schools, the company also welcomed consultants without a master's degree or with alternative degrees who demonstrated suitability for the positions. This approach resulted in a more diverse pool of accepted candidates, encompassing various dimensions.


Modes of Action:

- The decision-making process involved hypothesis testing, including a comprehensive study and analysis of transactions in other company branches.

- McKinsey employed a piloting approach, making small, localized decisions that underwent experimentation, validation, and extensive discussions before implementing a significant decision to expand the policy.

- Emphasizing experimentation, McKinsey nurtured a culture that encouraged exploring innovative solutions and new approaches.

- To reach optimal decisions, the company prioritized problem-solving, relying on data as the central foundation, rather than succumbing to ego or hierarchy.

- McKinsey revamped its recruitment branding to avoid biased judgments, ensuring that every candidate was evaluated fairly and on merit.

- The company invested in widespread implementation, building support, showcasing success stories, and effectively communicating the decision's rationale. This ongoing effort eventually institutionalized the decision throughout the organization.


Organization: Partners HealthCare System

Description: An Academic Medical Center comprising 12 hospitals.


The Significant Decision:

Partners HealthCare System faced the challenge of determining the optimal treatment for patients and effectively implementing it.


Decision Approach:

The organization chose to adopt an advisory-supportive information system, which proved to be instrumental in providing medical recommendations and delivering medications based on patient data and computerized analysis. As an additional outcome, the decision resulted in the successful introduction of computerized prescriptions, leading to reduced errors and increased standardization.


Modes of Action:

- The decision-making process involved the delivery of medications and medical recommendations grounded in patient data and computerized analysis, ensuring precision and accuracy.

- Partners HealthCare System developed a specialized knowledge system to extract structured knowledge from physicians and store it in a central repository, enabling analysis and future reference.

- To foster comprehensive decision-making, the organization emphasized collaboration, involving human expertise and machine-generated insights. This synergistic approach ensured the integration of diverse perspectives and sources of knowledge.


Organization: Cognizant

Description: A software house.


The Significant Decision:

Cognizant faced the challenge of resolving developer problems for customer applications on a unified company platform.


The Decision:

To tackle this challenge, the company created a shared content repository for developers, housing many problems and solutions with an efficient search option. Additionally, Cognizant integrated social media tools to enhance usage and engagement, culminating in forming a shared knowledge community comprising employees, customers, and suppliers, all centered around this solution.


The Result:

Implementing this decision yielded positive outcomes, particularly in daily acceptance processes. Teams could now access community content, engaging in consultations that improved overall efficiency and problem-solving capabilities.


Modes of Action:

- Embracing Collaborative Decision-Making: Cognizant successfully adopted a new working method by promoting active consultation and collaboration among team members.

- Managing a Rich Knowledge Management Environment: The company established a robust foundation for accessing information and knowledge and facilitating better decision-making across the organization.



Organization: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Elementary School Network

The Significant Decision:

Addressing the challenge of low student achievement levels compared to other schools in the country.


The Decision:

To address this issue, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Elementary School Network implemented data-driven management practices throughout its schools. This comprehensive approach involved daily and continuous monitoring of student behavior, grades, and all other academic aspects, with all information meticulously recorded in a centralized system. Based on this data, decisions were made, and weekly meetings were conducted using the reports as a foundation for discussions and action.


Modes of Action:

- Implementation of Data-Driven Decision-Making: The network ensured that data-driven decision-making practices were embedded in every school and classroom, streamlining academic management and support.

- Leveraging Insights from the Business World: By learning from successful practices in the business world, the network applied relevant implications to the field of educational content, refining its approach to improving student achievement.

- Gradual Education on Effective Data Use: Recognizing the importance of skillful data utilization, the network gradually educated its staff on the best practices for data-driven decision-making.

- Strong Leadership for Data-Driven Management: The network appointed a senior management figure responsible for performance measurement and data-driven management, providing essential guidance and support in this transformative journey.

- Establishing a Support Channel: To address challenges and complexities, the network set up a support channel to assist in handling difficulties related to data-driven management effectively.

- Embracing Continuous Improvement: A systematic and continuous improvement process was integrated into the network's operations, ensuring that progress was continually nurtured and sustained.


Organization: Ancient Athens

Year: 480 BC


The Significant Decision:

Ancient Athens faced the daunting challenge of confronting an imminent invasion of Greece.


The Decision:

In response to this critical threat, the decision-makers chose a bold strategy of "abandoning" the city and seeking refuge on ships. However, this was not a surrender but a tactical move to regroup their forces. They courageously launched a counterattack against the invaders from the sea, resulting in a triumphant defense and preserving their beloved city. What made this decision even more remarkable was its power to mobilize all citizens, instilling a sense of unity and commitment among the people who actively participated in its implementation.


Modes of Action:

- A Joint Democratic Decision: This momentous choice was made collectively by all city citizens, reflecting the democratic ideals at the core of Ancient Athens.

- Leadership Taking Charge: The city's leaders guided the decision-making process, providing direction and assurance during these critical times.

- A Well-Managed Process: The decision-making process was characterized by meticulous planning and thoughtful consideration. It involved:

  • A dedicated team gathering preliminary information and assessing the situation comprehensively.

  • Exploring various alternatives and strategic options.

  • Disseminating crucial data and fostering mutual consultation to thoroughly discuss and evaluate different courses of action.

  • Allocating time for joint discussions and separate deliberations, ensuring a well-informed and principled decision-making approach.


Organization: Vanguard Group - Mabel, Investment Adviser

The Significant Decision:

As an investment adviser at Vanguard Group, Mabel faced the formidable challenge of deciding whether to approve investments that the market perceived as safe but raised doubts when objectively examined.


The Decision:

Demonstrating her commitment to sound decision-making, Mabel prioritized data and principles above all else, choosing not to invest in uncertain options.


The Result:

Her prudent approach paid off during the 2008 bubble burst when many other investment houses incurred substantial losses. Thanks to Mabel's wise choices, Vanguard Group safeguarded its clients from financial harm.


Modes of Action:

- Providing Strong Support to Management: In the face of pressure and potential short-term losses, Mabel backed the management's decisions, recognizing the importance of holding steadfast to their principles.

- Data-Driven and Professional Decisions: Mabel firmly relied on data and professional judgment as the bedrock of her decision-making process, ensuring informed and well-considered choices.

- Nurturing an Organizational Culture of Values: Vanguard Group cultivated an organizational culture rooted in core values, promoting long-term thinking, respect for individuals, and knowledge-driven decisions for every investment.

- Subjecting Decisions to Critical Examination: Mabel subjected each decision to rigorous scrutiny, considering counter-aspects and potential risks to ensure a comprehensive evaluation.


These significant decisions in Ancient Athens and Vanguard Group exemplify the power of thoughtful and strategic approaches, whether in facing dire threats or navigating complex financial landscapes.


Organization: EMC

Description: A large hardware and software company.


The Significant Decision:

EMC faced the formidable challenge of streamlining operations during significant market difficulty after the bubble burst.


The Decision:

To address this challenge, the company adopted a multi-faceted approach to streamlining. It began with sweeping wage reductions, followed by several local initiatives that aimed to enhance efficiency by leveraging employee input and promoting collaborative thinking.


Modes of Action:

- Mutual Guarantee: During these trying times, EMC fostered a sense of unity and support among its employees, encouraging them to face the difficulties together as a cohesive team.

- Lead by Example: EMC's managers set an inspiring precedent by taking a more substantial cut in their salary percentages, demonstrating their unwavering commitment to streamlining efforts.

- Transparency: The decision-making process at EMC was transparent and open, ensuring that employees understood the rationale behind the actions taken and felt included in the decision-making process.

- Enhanced Collaboration: The company leveraged social media tools to create a digital platform for dialogue and collaboration among employees. This facilitated better communication and fostered a stronger sense of connection within the organization.

- Fostering a Sense of Identity and Belonging: EMC made conscious efforts to instill a sense of belonging and pride among its employees, emphasizing that they were vital contributors to collective action.

- Continuous Improvement: Recognizing that streamlining was an ongoing process, EMC remained dedicated to continuously refining and adapting its strategies to navigate the ever-changing circumstances.


Organization: Media General

Description: A media company.


The Significant Decision:

Media General confronted the challenge of adapting to changes like traditional consumption while striving to renew value for customers and ensure profitability.


The Decision:

To overcome this challenge, the company embarked on a transformative decision to change its organizational structure, moving away from traditional platforms such as the press and the Internet.


The Result:

Despite its size and established status, the company successfully led the change process. This proactive approach resulted in increased profitability, a prominent position in the sector, and a shift towards a more democratic decision-making approach within the organization.


Modes of Action:

- Collaborative Thinking: Media General established a dedicated team comprising individuals with diverse cultural and mental backgrounds to encourage innovative and inclusive thinking.

- Embracing New Perspectives: The company embraced openness to new directions of thinking, breaking away from traditional boundaries and embracing change as a catalyst for growth.

- Brainstorming Sessions: To promote creativity and idea generation, Media General prioritized brainstorming sessions over formal presentations, encouraging dynamic discussions.

- An Evolving Discussion Process: Recognizing the importance of thorough examination and convergence of ideas, the company engaged in discussions without time pressures to allow for meaningful exploration.

- Building Trust: Media General focused on building trust among team members, fostering a collaborative and harmonious work environment where open communication thrived.

- Knowledge Sharing: The company actively managed discourse as a sub-team to promote cross-organizational knowledge sharing, enabling valuable insights from diverse perspectives.

- Collaborative Decision-Making: Decisions at Media General were made collectively, inviting input from various stakeholders to ensure a well-rounded and informed approach.

- Learning from External Market: To stay at the forefront of innovation, the company actively gained insights from external market experiences, leveraging these learnings to inform their decision-making.

- Investing in Engagement: Media General recognized the importance of employee engagement and involvement throughout the decision-making process, promoting a sense of ownership and dedication to organizational goals.


Organization: The Wallace Foundation

Description: A charitable foundation.


The Significant Decision:

The Wallace Foundation faced the critical challenge of effectively investing charitable funds to create a meaningful social impact.


The Decision:

At the preliminary stage, the foundation decided to focus its contributions on education and public schools. Subsequently, it strategically chose to invest in outstanding principals as a central approach to drive school excellence.


Modes of Action:

- Research and Experimentation: The foundation engaged in a comprehensive research study and conducted numerous small experiments, gradually leading to the development of a precise investment methodology that yields tangible results and impact.

- Fostering a Culture of Inquiry: The Wallace Foundation actively promoted a culture of asking questions and inquisitiveness to encourage continuous learning and improvement.

- Diverse Think Tank: The foundation established a leading think tank comprising individuals with diverse knowledge and expertise in the field of education, enriching the decision-making process with varied perspectives.

- Collaborative Brainstorming: Brainstorming sessions were conducted without time constraints, allowing for open and insightful discussions that culminated in the convergence of innovative ideas.

- Gradual Implementation: Recognizing the significance of long-term impact, the foundation embraced a patient and deliberate approach to implementing initiatives, understanding that lasting change takes time.

- Balanced Approach: While firmly committed to implementing its ideas, The Wallace Foundation adopted a compassionate and flexible approach when working with people, recognizing the importance of empathy and understanding.

- Knowledge and Culture: Within the organization, questions were regarded as critical values, fostering a learning-driven culture that continuously seeks knowledge to make informed decisions.

- Utilizing Project Management Tools: Supporting project management utilities were employed to facilitate the efficient sharing of information and coordination among stakeholders.

- Supportive Organizational Structure: The foundation established a supportive organizational structure, enabling effective decision-making and streamlined implementation of initiatives.

- Continuous Improvement: The Wallace Foundation instituted a systematic process for continuous improvement, allowing for the refinement of strategies and approaches over time based on ongoing evaluations and insights.


Organization: Tweezerman

Description: A tweezers manufacturing company with a patent.


The Significant Decision:

Tweezerman faced the challenge of managing an accelerated growth process that proved difficult to handle.


The Decision:

In response, the company proactively made a series of decisions to facilitate growth while avoiding setbacks. A strategic focus was placed on establishing partnerships with other companies for distribution and completing processes.


Modes of Action:

- Employee Partnership and Communication: Tweezerman actively involved employees in company ownership and encouraged open communication throughout the organization to foster a sense of right and dedication.

- Team Collaboration: The company moderated team discussions, creating a platform for generating ideas, solving problems, and encouraging open and constructive dialogue.

- Embracing Informality: Tweezerman adopted an informal approach, cultivating a relaxed and creative work environment that nurtured innovation.

- Leading with Company Values: Guided by a solid commitment to its core values, the company made decisions that align with its principles, ensuring a consistent and purpose-driven approach.

- Embracing Mistakes: Tweezerman recognized that mistakes present valuable opportunities for growth and learning, fostering an environment where employees felt empowered to take calculated risks and learn from their experiences.

- Building a Diverse Team: Understanding the power of diversity, the company actively hired staff members with complementary abilities, promoting collaboration and overall performance across the organization.

bottom of page