Avoid The Minimum Common Denominator In Organizational Decision-Making

As appeared in Chief Executive.

Mathematicians have long worked on and successfully devised formulaic approaches to understanding human behavior. From game theory to decision theory, it now seems increasingly clear that, as unpredictable as we humans can be, there in fact are mathematical constructs behind many of our decisions and behaviors. One day there may even be a mathematical formula for predicting the future of humanity—what science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov called “psychohistory” 70 years ago in his novel Foundation. For now, however, company leaders need not be so bold in their mathematical assumptions; nor do they need to become experts in game theory or decision theory (though they are helpful for leaders who seek greater understanding of human behavior).

There is a simple math concept that organizational leaders can consider today to refine their decision-making: lowest common denominator, or “LCD.”

In math terms, the LCD is the smallest common multiple among the denominators in a set of fractions. Said differently, it’s the smallest positive integer that is a multiple of each denominator in the set. Here’s an easy example. Consider the set of fractions (1/4, 1/3, and 1/2). The LCD in this set is 12 because 12 is the smallest possible integer that is a multiple of the denominators 4, 3, and 2. We could convert all three of the above fractions into ones that can easily be added and subtracted by using their lowest common denominator: 3/12, 4/12, and 6/12.

By way of analogy, we can take this concept and apply it to organizational decision-making. In this context, a leader engages in LCD thinking when they make decisions based on the ideal of ensuring a minimum level of common agreement and avoiding dissent or dissatisfaction within the organization. Examples include:

  1. Limiting plans, ideas or other actions to those that theoretically will satisfy every person in the organization;
  2. Resisting the idea that each team member is a unique individual in favor of seeing the entire team as one unit limited by common agreement among its team members; or
  3. Measuring satisfaction by reference to the satisfaction of the least satisfied people in the organization.

Before proceeding further, it is also important to note what LCD thinking is not. Despite the terminology, it has nothing to do with creating hierarchies in which, according to some measure, position or viewpoint, certain people are “highest” and others are “lowest” in the organization. That’s something different and almost always toxic. Therefore, to avoid misuse or misunderstanding, we can shift the terminology from “lowest common denominator” to “minimum common denominator”—or “MCD”—which seems to fit better when referring to organizational decision-making.

Now, MCD thinking may seem overly idealistic, but it isn’t always a bad thing. At its best, it can be a useful way to ask whether any single person is being left behind or left out for reasons that are beyond their control. It’s also a helpful construct for questioning and requestioning the direction of the organization. Sometimes it is the quiet voice of a sole dissenter that offers the hidden and better path that the larger group cannot see because it has become too comfortable and confident (a.k.a. “group think”).

There are even times when an organization will intentionally want to use MCD thinking. Most decisions around legal, compliance and safety/security policies, for example, should be based on MCD thinking in that they must be accepted by, and applied equally to, everyone in the organization.

And it’s important to consider MCD thinking when communicating globally within an organization. Messaging often must be framed in language to which everyone can relate to ensure that it is received as consistently and broadly as possible.

But MCD thinking is often highly counterproductive in an organization, and leaders must be aware of its potential drawbacks. Most obvious is the danger of trying to please everyone in the organization at the expense of making optimal decisions for the broader organization. It can be tempting to make decisions that a leader thinks will minimize disagreements, discontent, and discord—especially if the leader is overly focused on intra-company politics. The problem with this kind of MCD thinking, however, is that it can lead to avoiding hard decisions that ultimately are better for the organization and its stakeholders. In its extreme form, this kind of MCD thinking can lead to constraints within the organization, where the organization is held back by a small minority of unhappy or dissenting employees.

A more subtle form of MCD thinking is when leaders spend disproportionate time, energy and emotion catering to one or more individual dissidents at the expense of everyone else in the organization. Especially as an organization becomes larger, its leaders need to recognize that consensus will become impossible to achieve. They need to be prepared to engage with multiple segments of the organization to optimize and coordinate efforts with the understanding that the organization has become sufficiently large and complex to warrant approaches that some invariably will find disagreeable.

Again, this is not to say that certain organizational segments are necessarily more important than others; nor is it to suggest that fairness and integrity across the organization can ever be compromised. It’s simply to say that differences do need to be acknowledged and accepted—even celebrated—for the benefit of the broader organization.

Ultimately, what’s important is that leaders understand and have awareness around their propensity to engage in MCD thinking. The theoretical math behind the concept is, well, just math; but knowing when and how to apply it is the real nuance. In some cases, MCD thinking will ensure that all the interests within the organization add up to the right sum. In others, it will, in a mathematical paradox, reduce the value of that sum. For now, human intuition and judgment are still needed, as the solution will differ for just about every problem.