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Notes from Bhutan: How to Make Better Decisions

How do you make smarter business decisions that are good for profit and for people?

Here’s a simple answer that we’re learning from Bhutan’s Sangay Dorji, a charismatic innovator who has been involved with the development, planning and operationalisation of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) programme for over a decade.

We’re meeting Sangay in a café above the Thimpu valley, and he’s explaining that Bhutan’s solution is deceptively simple; take your corporate values out from presentations and posters and turn them into a practical decision-tool – that gets used. In Bhutan, where citizen happiness is the ultimate goal of government strategy, this decision tool is called is called the GNH Screening Tool. It’s a simple open-source value-based questionnaire that sensitises decision-makers to the (often unintended) consequences of their decisions on citizen happiness and the enabling conditions for happiness to flourish.

Of course, many businesses have something similar to GNH Screening Tool, often in the form of a checklist to help ensure that business decisions are made in alignment with corporate values. But sometimes business imperatives get in the way of value-driven decisions and sometimes abstract corporate values feel only tangentially relevant to day-to-day business decisions.

To help overcome these issues, Sangay explains how the GNH Screening Tool has been developed to make it easier and more practical to use.

First, the GNH Screening Tool has a simple scoring system to help inform decisions. Take each of your corporate values in turn and score your decision on the on the likely outcome it will have in promoting or undermining each value.

  • Negative impact on value (score 1)
  • Unknown impact on value (score 2)
  • Neutral impact on value (score 3)
  • Positive impact on value (score 4)

So to develop your own GNH Screening Tool, list each of your corporate values, and assess how a decision will impact on these values in terms of promoting or undermining them. Add up all your scores, and only go-head with you the decision if it scores above 50%, i.e. it is a net-contributor to your values. And if your decision undermines any of your values, consider putting in place mitigating measures.

As a scale geek obsessed with psychometric scales, I like this simple four-point scale because it takes into account and scores the unknown consequences (unknown impact) of decisions. It’s also smart because it looks at impact rather than value alignment – focusing on the effects of the decision on promoting this value, rather than whether they are aligned to some theoretical value matrix.

For Sangay, the GNH Screening Tool is both an educational tool and a decision aid, and it is the key tool that makes GNH happen. People talk about the GNH Index, but for Sangay, it is the GNH Screening Tool that is the hero of Gross National Happiness.

“We use the GNH Screening tool as a lens to ensure that our policies are GNH-friendly and don’t have any adverse effect on elements of GNH…. we use it to mainstream GNH into plans and programmes”.

The second advantage of the GNH Screening Tool is that it exists in multiple forms, adapted to different decision areas to make it more applicable.  For example, there are 19 versions of the GNH Screening Tool all adapted to different project areas ranging from media and information to education and health. This translates Bhutan’s equivalent of abstract corporate values into practical, applied decision-making tools (there is also a general strategic policy screening tool, used to assess the impact on indicators known to influence citizen wellbeing).

What we like about the GNH Screening Tool is that addresses one criticism of the other main tool and the GNH toolbox, the GNH Index – essentially a dashboard happiness tracker used to measure citizen happiness and the enabling conditions for happiness to flourish.  The GNH Index is like a client/customer sentiment tracker – it provides a rear-view diagnostic measure of what’s working, what’s not working and where, allowing decision-makers to learn from success and put right problems.  The criticism of GNH Index, like any tracker, is its rear-view nature – trackers don’t help inform new future-facing decisions.  That’s where the GNH Screen Tool comes in; it is a future-facing decision tool designed to help decision-makers make positive value-led decisions.

So could we and our clients, learn from Bhutan’s GHN Screening Tools?  For example, could we at SYZYGY use a GNH Screening Tool to improve decisions about our work for our clients? For instance,  Mazda is one of our automotive clients and has a happiness-related core vision, to “brighten people’s lives through car ownership”).  Mazda has a embraced a number of core values in it’s new ‘Sustainable Zoom-Zoom 2030‘ vision

  • “People: Enhance customers’ mental wellbeing with the satisfaction that comes from protecting the Earth and contributing to society with a car that offers true driving pleasure”
  • “Earth: Through conservation initiatives, create a sustainable future in which people and cars coexist with a bountiful, beautiful Earth”
  • “Society: Realize cars and a society that offer safety and peace of mind, and create a system that enriches lives by offering unrestricted mobility to people everywhere”

The opportunity for us, at SYZYGY, is to learn from Bhutan and take the values of our clients seriously by integrating them into our decisions through custom GNH Screening Tool based on their value priorities.  In this way, we can see beyond – and above – the brief and ensure that our decisions we take in our work promote the core values of our clients.

Could a GNH Screening Tool, based on your own corporate values, help you make better decisions?


Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.