What I learnt from recording and analysing my own decisions when responding on the ground

When I first joined ALNAP’s study on operational decision-making in humanitarian action - Beyond Assumptions: How humanitarians make operational decisions -  I felt confident in the knowledge that I would be sharing my own experience. I did not expect to learn anything new or to reflect much on the way I normally make the decisions.

What I learnt from recording and analysing my own decisions when responding on the ground

Photo credit: Conal Gallagher/flickr

And yet, with every decision I registered and analysed in my diary, my confidence started to falter, and my learning process began. Soon, I realised that the most important aspect for me was not the decision-making itself, but noticing whether the decision was actually worth making rather than following decisions already made by others.

Having said that, I believe that working in the humanitarian sector is very much about understanding and applying standards. It is also about following guidelines and maintaining coordination, which from one perspective, means that an organisation gives up part of its autonomy in decision-making to follow pre-determined routes agreed by others or with others. There are many good reasons to justify this standardisation and I this reflection does not intend to undermine its value added for the sector. However, during this study I started to pay attention to the trap hidden there. When grappling with countless deadlines and conflicting priorities in constantly changing contexts, it can be really tempting to skip decision points by simply applying one of the available “default” pathways. There is nothing wrong with it. One of the very basic reasons we have “best practice” approaches and standards is to save time and avoid reinventing the wheel in crises.

At the same time, in looking out for decision-making opportunities during the study, I realised that pausing and reflecting with my team on how and whether to apply any given procedure, standard or practice presented us with an incredible opportunity. The opportunity to challenge “default” pathways, learn from decisions and find the best ways to make them in certain contexts.

What I learnt from recording and analysing my own decisions when responding on the ground_2

Photo credit: UNHCR.

From a leadership perspective there is a huge potential for keeping your team curious, innovative and open minded throughout the project cycle. I learned that by creating a bit more space for making even the most basic of decisions does not have to be about reinventing the wheel. It can be about reinventing the way we work as a team and improve the quality of our work.

These “default” paths in decision-making are sometimes hidden in standards, procedures or in the results of coordination meetings. As a result of ALNAP’s study, I realised that there are many opportunities in my work that I often miss by following an existing path without reflecting enough on how it fits into a specific context or project, or without challenging a process to improve.

Monika Slosarska participated in ALNAP's research on operational decision-making in humanitarian contexts which used an innovative diary methodology to examine the conditions within which decisions get made, and which decision-making approaches might be best suited for different settings. Monika registered 30 number of decisions from 2 August to 12 November 2018 . This study would not have been possible without the diarised contributions of our 55 participants.