Dr. J. Frank Yates
Difficult Decisions Done Right
Dr. J. Frank Yates was a professor, lecturer, researcher, diversity advocate, and pioneer of decision-making science. Yates’ decision management research made him one of the first academics in the field of decision science to apply multidisciplinary discoveries to important decisions in the real world. An author of over 100 scientific publications, Yates’ contributions to the field are far-reaching and immense.
Yates was a pioneer in forwarding diversity in academia, as he established some of the first institutions designed to aid marginalized scholars. For his brilliant mind, commitment to the social good, and his desire to apply decision science to the hardest problems, Dr. J. Frank Yates is a manifestation of everything we strive for at The Decision Lab.
On their shoulders
For millennia, great thinkers and scholars have been working to understand the quirks of the human mind. Today, we’re privileged to put their insights to work, helping organizations to reduce bias and create better outcomes.
“The goal of decision evaluation is not to blame or punish. It is to determine precisely where and why the decision-making process broke down in order to reduce the odds that mistakes will be repeated. It is to make us better and our companies stronger.”
- Dr. J. Frank Yates
“If we are always making inaccurate judgments, why aren’t we dead already?”
- Dr. J. Frank Yates
“No company committee would sign off on a major decision just because a member says, “I don’t know why, but that just feels like the right thing to do. So let’s just do it, OK?” But many managers will confess to times when they would like to do exactly that: pursue some action on the basis of vague intuitions.”
- Dr. J. Frank Yates
“Let me be the Devil's advocate … if not the Devil himself!”
- Dr. J. Frank Yates
“Good and bad things don’t “just happen” in or to a business. They happen in large measure because of actions that particular people in the company take or fail to take. And why do people pursue the actions they do? Because of their own decisions or those made by others”
- Dr. J. Frank Yates
Jacques Frank Yates was born in Memphis, Tennessee on September 1st, 1945. An outstanding student, Yates graduated maxima cum laude with an A.B. degree from Notre Dame. In 1967, he moved to Ann Arbour to pursue a master’s degree in mathematical and computational psychology at the University of Michigan. After getting his master’s, he continued his career at the University of Michigan as both a faculty lecturer and Ph.D. student
At the time, Black academics like Yates were highly unrepresented, an issue Yates fought to resolve. While completing his Ph.D., Yates was instrumental in establishing institutions for African-American academics. His main accomplishments as a graduate student include establishing the Comprehensive Studies Program, a program which aids Black students achieve academic success, and laying the groundwork for the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at Michigan.
After achieving his Ph.D, Yates became a full-time professor at University of Michigan, where he would spend 50 years working as a researcher and professor, unraveling mysteries of the decision-making process.
Yates’ research was both groundbreaking and diverse. He primarily studied the cognitive process of decision-making, how we make good decisions, and how culture affects decision-making capacities. Yates also examined how we can overcome cognitive biases that prevent us from making good decisions, such as uncertainty avoidance, decision neglect, and overconfidence. As a professor of both marketing and psychology, he worked hard to make his findings accessible for as many individuals as possible. His “Cardinal Issue Perspective”, led to important insights in the fields of marketing, management, and healthcare.
Yates’ commitment to diversity did not stop in graduate school. As a professor, he established the Ross School's Preparation Initiative, a program designed to assist undergraduate students from economically distressed or underrepresented racial groups in entering the bachelor of business program. After a long career of commitment to diversity, Yates was awarded the Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service award. Unfortunately, Yates passed away last year. However, his efforts promoting diversity and insights into the decision-making process benefit our world to this day.
Cardinal Perspective of Decision Making
Yates found that difficult decisions typically follow a particular, step-by-step process. If we fail in any of these steps, we make the wrong decision or fail to make one altogether. As a business professor, Yates focused mainly on management, however, his decision-making system can be utilized for big, tough decisions in our day-to-day lives. He dubbed this system the “Cardinal Issue Perspective”, which is composed of ten decision issues:
The first step is deciding if a decision should be made. In a company, this usually occurs when problems or opportunities present themselves. Entering this stage requires keeping a close eye on the competitive business landscape and acquiring foresight into the ever-shifting demands of the market. Once an opportunity or problem is found, the manager can decide whether to initiate a decision-making process or not.
The second step is to decide who should make the decision once the problem is identified. This step involves deciding to take on the opportunity yourself, delegate it, form committees, or contract external consultants.
The next step involves determining trade-offs and potential rewards. Think of this step as a cost-benefit analysis of a potential decision. It is necessary to decide how many resources you are willing to invest to see a decision through. These investments are both material (money, time, workers) and immaterial (stress, conflicts, and uncertainty).
In this cardinal rule, we assemble possible responses to our problem or opportunity. Ideally, we will gather choices in a manner that will reveal the best solution in the least wasteful way. Yates suggests methods like asking staff, seeking aid from a consultant, brainstorming groups, or looking at past successes of other organizations in a similar situation.
Here, we examine what the potential outcomes could be if we follow a particular decision. Being able to forecast effectively allows managers to avoid failure when bad fortune falls upon them, as they will have considered the adverse outcomes in their strategic decision plan.
Closely tied to the previous step, this cardinal rule requires us to isolate the most plausible results from making a decision. Yates states this step is very important, as decisions are based on predictions, opinions, and projections. When a manager can increase the number of perspectives on the feasibility of a prediction, the quality of these judgments improves.
This cardinal rule introduces other actors into the equation: stakeholders. By pursuing a decision, we must take into consideration how stakeholders value an action and its outcomes. By assessing how they may react, we can begin to predict if key stakeholders in this process will support or oppose this decision.
- Trade Offs:
a more formal analysis of strengths and weaknesses. Yates suggests using “tradeoff techniques”, such as the MAUT technique, to accurately assess the other costs and benefits of a decision.
Going back to stakeholders, we must make sure that they agree with the decision that we are about to make, as well as trust that they believe in the procedure that came up with the decision. You must look for groups that might have a problem with the decision, and determine how to work around that.
The final step is to implement the decision, but also prevent circumstances that may cause the decision to fail. Yates outlines some of these circumstances, which range from failing to provide proper incentives for workers to failing to adequately supply resources to an initiative.
Books by J. Frank Yates
Decision Management: How to Assure Better Decisions in Your Company: Yates’ magnum opus, Decision Management, outlines Yates’ “Cardinal Issue Perspective” to describe how to make correct decisions and why our decisions often fail. This landmark book argues how powerful managing our decisions can be in our lives and businesses.
Judgement and Decision Making: Yates’ 1990 work was an early textbook on decision-making science. As this field was still in its infancy, Yates’ book was designed to be an introductory text, giving a broad overview of the science, and its developments, in a manner that would be consumable by upper-level undergraduates.
Research Directions of Black Psychologists: In 1980, Yates co-authored this book to provide key psychological insights into issues that affect the black community. The book largely focused on motivation, cognitive development, life-span development, and cultural differences. Furthermore, it addressed incorrect assumptions about the psychological functioning of black people which had been propagated previously.
Academic Papers by J. Frank Yates:
If you are interested in Yates’ academic work, here is a small, yet diverse sample, which shows the variety of research interests Yates worked on. Topics range from ensuring decision-making quality to the effects of culture on decision-making.
- Hard decisions, bad decisions: On decision quality and decision aiding (2003):
- Marketing to individual consumers online: The influence of perceived control
- “Let’s just go with it.”: The perils of decision neglect
- Culture and Decision Making
Lectures by J. Frank Yates:
Implementation Science 2012 Keynote Address:
If you are interested in hearing Yates’ explain how his decision-making framework can help us make better medical decisions, check out his keynote address at the Michigan Institute for Clinical & Health Research. View Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of the lecture here.
Yates, J. F. (n.d.). Decision Management: A Game Plan to Achieve Organizational Grand Slams. Michigan Ross. https://www.bus.umich.edu/FacultyResearch/Research/DecisionManagement.html.
Schaffer, E. (2011, November 2). J. Frank Yates and a Decision-Making Theory for the Real World. Association for Psychological Science - APS. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/j-frank-yates-and-a-decision-making-theory-for-the-real-world.
Legacy. (2020, November 19). Jacques Frank Yates. Obituaries. https://obits.mlive.com/obituaries/annarbor/obituary.aspx?n=jacques-frank-yates&pid=197175690.
U-M LSA Department of Psychology. (n.d.). Faculty Memorial - J. Frank Yates (1945-2020) . In Memoriam. https://lsa.umich.edu/psych/news-events/all-news/faculty-news/faculty-memorial---j--frank-yates--1945-2020-.html.