What's Les Misérables got to do with good Decision Making?

by Derek Winter


In 2010 the musical Les Misérables celebrated it’s 25 anniversary. Based on the book of the same name written by Victor Hugo in 1862, it is considered to be one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. I admit, to my shame, that I have not yet read the novel, but have seen the musical and the more recently produced movie. I highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of whether musicals are a genre of story-telling that you typically enjoy; It’s a great story.

I did have the pleasure of watching the 25th anniversary concert on DVD recently which was filmed live at the concert held in the O2 arena in London. (I recommend that DVD as well!).

Beginning in 1815 and culminating in the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, the novel follows the lives and interactions of several characters, particularly the struggles of ex-convict Jean Valjean examining the nature of law and grace and in particular Jean Vajean’s experience of redemption.

Anyway, I digress. One of the theme’s that spans the whole story is encompassed in one song in particular, and reprised throughout - “Who am I?” Each of the main characters asks this question in one way or another and the story explores the effects of the search for an answer to this question and the implications of how we answer it.

It was this question that grabbed my attention and brought focus to the key of ‘good’ decision making.

Decision making is an important topic in a lot of companies: Who gets to decide what? What’s the process? Are decisions made in a timely fashion? How do we make good decisions? Decision making at an individual level is also an important topic.

Traditionally, in most organisations, most important decisions are made by bosses and managers. That said, there has been a lot of discussion about the benefits of participatory decision making, or democratic decision making. There is a move towards flattening organisational structures and giving more decision making ability to those closer to the coal face.

The lack of freedom to make decisions is perhaps the single most debilitating and demoralising factor in the workplace today. Executives must relinquish most decisions to people who are closer to the problem and therefore better positioned to come up with the solution.

Not only will decisions be made by the people who are most familiar with the facts, but the act of making them gives more people a real stake in the organisation's performance. People then feel needed and valued because they are needed and valued. When a leader acts in a manner that assumes he is the best decision maker - in other words, the most knowledgeable and responsible member of a group - everyone else feels extraneous.

All of this leads to the considering how people make good decisions. Again, there are lot’s of examples of how organisations big and small have handled this (for large scale examples, refer to Dennis Bakke’s Joy at Work or Ricardo Semler’s Maverick. For smaller scale examples, consider it-agile’s Participatory decision making process or Buffer’s 24 people and no managers experiment). I don’t need to regurgitate organisational designs or decision making principals here that are well documented elsewhere. None of this explicitly helps an individual make a good decision though. Processes are useful, but they don’t fix everything.

The penny dropped however in considering the “Who am I” question. I believe this has relevance at three levels and is essential to making good decisions. The individual making a decision needs to know the answer and ‘live’ the answer to each of these three questions in order to make a good decision in any context. Knowing that people have these answers allows us to trust individuals and therefore to trust the decisions they make.

“Who am I” as an organisation?

If I know what my organisations identity is, what it’s purpose for being is and how it aims to achieve it’s outcomes, then I have the necessary broad context for making decisions which align with that identity. My responsibility is to ensure that decisions I make are aligned to that identity, and where I am un-sure, to seek appropriate counsel to satisfy myself that it is aligned. Once this is true any questions asked about a decision that’s made should be able to be answered by demonstrating the connection between the decision and the identity of the organisation.

“Who am I” as an individual within this organisation?

If I know where I fit into the bigger picture of the organisation as a whole. Why I am there and what contribution I am expected to make, the I have necessary immediate context for which decisions are within my domain to make and ‘own’ and those that fall within the remit of others within the organisation.

“Who am I” as an individual?

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, if I don’t know who I am at my core. The soul of my being and my purpose in life as an individual, then I will falter and be inconsistent with decisions I make. In some ways, this should perhaps go first in line as without this integrity. Without an understanding of values and principles that guide my life, my decision making is likely to be inconsistent and not trustworthy. I will be affected by the currents around me and swayed by the external influences as opposed to having a core strength that guides my contribution to society broadly, and my place of work specifically day by day.

It is this central struggle with who he is that Jean Valjean carries throughout Les Misérables. It informs the key choices that he makes which affect the trajectory of his life and the impact that he has on those around him. I would encourage us all to grapple with that and hold true to it in all that we do personally and professionally.