Macclesfield, UK, 12 March, 2013. A piece by TransparentChoice.

Why the current process of selecting a Pope is broken and how technology can help.

Ok, so we are unlikely to see this headline for real in 2013, but perhaps we should. When we think about ensuring an election is “true and fair,” and this papal vote is simply an election, we tend to think about preventing vote tampering or vote rigging. This is the real weak point of a vote taking place in a closed room, isn’t it?

Well, no, not in this case.

It turns out that the voting process itself is quite robust. Global hacking guru, Bruce Schneier, concludes that, “When an election process is left to develop over the course of a couple of thousand years, you end up with something surprisingly good.(1)” Vote rigging, then, is not the problem. So what is?

To answer that, let’s go back to basics. Let’s ask ourselves what the point of the election is. Well, the obvious answer is, “To elect a Pope”. Wrong. The point of the election is “To elect the best possible Pope from the available set of candidates.”

Today the process for finding “the best Pope” is to effectively lock a bunch of ageing cardinals in a room and not let them out until they agree on a candidate (by a “two thirds plus one majority,” if you’re interested). What is it that they do in that locked chapel? Are they discussing points of theology? Are they talking about which candidate is the most charismatic manager? Are they simply doing murky deals at the back of the chapel? There’s no process and no transparency leaving the door wide open to poor decision making, bias or even corruption.

This problem, and it’s not unique to the Catholic church. According to McKinsey, most company executives make as many bad decisions as good. Now that IS a problem.

Why is it that bright people make bad decisions so often? Academics have done a lot of research to answer that question, research that has lead to a whole branch of decision science that looks at multi-criteria decisions. Selecting a Pope is a classic multi-criteria, multi-party problem.

The first real challenge in these cases is working out what criteria are going to be used to make a decision. The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) suggests that cardinals are looking for a Pope with the ability to reach a wide audience, holiness in belief and action, intellect, communication skills and management ability(3). “In other words, they want Jesus Christ with an MBA,” says the NCR, “…and he left town to join the family business”.

That begs the question; who decides what criteria are most important in selecting a Pope? Who judges the relative importance of these criteria? Luckily, a class of software called collaborative decision making software can help groups make these decisions quickly and with better quality.

So what would this software do for the cardinals? First, it would give them a forum to explicitly prioritize criteria, allowing them to build a consensus around what’s important. It would then help them measure the candidates against those criteria in an objective and consensual way. In our wilder flights of fancy, we imagine red-robed cardinals tapping away on smartphones and tablets, using decision making software to quickly achieve consensus around the strongest candidate for the Top Job.

This makes the decision making process quicker, which could matter a lot for the cardinals in Rome. As Stuart Easton, CEO of TransparentChoice, says, “It doesn’t matter how beautiful the art on the walls is, nobody wants to be stuck in the same room for a week or more!”

It doesn’t matter if your measure of success is revenue, profit, customer satisfaction or the ability of the Pope to lead the Church, better decisions lead to better performance. The cost of those 50% bad decisions is simply too awful to contemplate and decision making software can have an immediate financial benefit, paying for itself many times over.

But the story doesn’t end there. In the US, something like 20,000 Catholic churches with around 64 million members raise around $7.5 billion every year(2). The Church is Big Business with millions of stakeholders and many of those people would like some insight into why a particular Pope is selected. Software would transform the decision making process from being a (literally) smoky affair into being a beacon of transparency. “Presenting a candidate to the World in the context of explicit priorities would go a long way in giving any new Pope a strong mandate,” said Easton. “More generally, we often find that working through a structured process and making it visible delivers real buy-in across an organization.” Which leads to better outcomes.

So while we’re far from seeing cardinals scoring criteria on their smartphones, more and more businesses and government departments are looking to adopt collaborative decision making software and processes. The financial and compliance benefits are clear – the easiest decision of the day! Smoke not included.

About TransparentChoice:

TransparentChoice provides software, available to use immediately over the Internet, that fosters collaborative decision making. We support any collaborative decision including project prioritization, strategic asset deployment, hiring, vendor selection / procurement, technology selection and more. Located in Cheshire, England, TransparentChoice is dedicated to bringing the power of decision science to organizations around the world cheaply and simply. We don’t believe that a Masters in decision science is a pre-requisite for making good decisions. Find out more at www.transparentchoice.comcontact@transparentchoice.com or by calling us on +1 781 609 7887 or +44 1244 940 929.