The Power of Decision Making

Many years ago, I had a lot of conversations with colleagues and even wrote a blog article on decision making.  On the heels of my blog re-launch and my recent blog on the importance of Truth in business, I think it would be a good idea to revisit this topic.

What Is Decision Making

When I refer to decision making, I’m talking about the ability and willingness to make a decision when necessary.  There are a few key aspects of my definition that I want to focus on:

  • Willingness: By this word, I mean the desire or comfort of wanting to make a decision.  If a person is not comfortable with making decisions for any reason, they won’t!
  • To Make A decision:  This part of the definition is key as it clarifies the real point.  “To Make” a decision.  Not to recommend or to theorize about a decision.  But to actually make one.
  • When Necessary: I added this to the end of the definition to indicate that the real power of decisions are fully realized when they are made at the right time.  Too early and the decision may lack necessary data.  Too late and the moment may have passed.

But this seems straight forward enough.  So, what’s the problem?

Lack of Decision Making

It may be hard to believe, but a lot of organizations have a problem due to lack of decision making.  We’ll discuss the impact of that later on in this blog. For now, let’s try to dig into why some organizations suffer from lack of decision making.

When asking the question “Why aren’t decisions being made?”, here are the typical answers you’ll get:

  1. Lack of or unclear authority to make decision
  2. Repercussions of an incorrect decision
  3. Lack of confidence in decision
  4. Analysis Paralysis: Lack of sufficient information

Those are four of the most common reasons why people don’t make decisions.  But are they really root causes!  Let’s ask a few questions to allow us to investigate these a bit further

  • Who really sets authority to make a decision?
  • If a developer has to make a decision on a line of code, do they ask permission?
  • Can anyone really have all the necessary information to make a fully informed decision?
  • Who has 100% confidence in a decision, and if they do, is there any real value to making the decision?  Doesn’t that make it a fact rather than a decision?
  • If you’re going to get fired for making a decision, is the decision really the problem or the organization?

As you asked yourself these questions, you would have realized that the superficial reasons that are typically given aren’t really the problem at all.  It’s clear that something else is beneath it, but what.  Maybe if we reword the four main reasons a bit, things would be a bit clearer:

  1. When I make this decision, I’m not sure if I will be supported by my organization or leader.
  2. If I make the wrong decision, I might be reprimanded.
  3. If I make the wrong decision, I might loose credibility in my organization.
  4. I’d rather delay progress than gamble on a decision

You’ll notice a two themes in the newly reworded reasons. The first is the lack of clarity on how leadership will support or react to decisions, especially the wrong ones.  The second theme is around how the organization (or specifically the organization’s culture) will handle the wrong decision or the gamble on a decision.  It’s comprised of two parts, the cultural view of wrong decision and the cultural view around gambling or experimentation in your organization.

Let’s explore these themes a bit more.

Leadership Impact of Decision Making

One of the key aspects of an organization’s decision making capability is it’s leadership.  A leadership that instills a top-down approach to decision making will no doubt force reduced decision making in the ranks.  The employees and junior leadership will hesitate to make decisions since it’s not encouraged.  Decisions are directed ‘upwards’, very similar to the path of escalation and soon enough, decision requests are sometimes treated the same as escalations with anxiety and a feeling of failure or mistakes.

Alternatively a leadership that pushes authority downwards will undoubtedly increase decision making throughout the organization.  Employees and junior leadership will be comfortable to make decisions.  Decisions become a part of everyday life. Repercussions of wrong decisions are not feared.  Keep in mind that just pushing decisions downwards doesn’t mean that good decision are going to be made.  More on how to enable decision making later.

Leadership also plays a crucial role in defining the culture of the organization and as you’ll see in the next theme, the organization’s culture will have a big role to play in decision making.

Cultural Impact on Decision Making

As I mentioned earlier, there are two key aspects of an organizations’s culture that influence decision making: 1) The cultural view of wrong decisions and 2) the cultural view of experimentation.  These two aspects are very much intertwined.

As a leadership team pushes decision making downward, they need to supplement that with a positive cultural view on decision making within the organization.  First, the organization’s culture needs to be build on a foundation of trust.  As mentioned in my previous blog, that is founded on a bed of Truth!  Once you have that foundation of trust, then you can live with the knowledge that everyone is operating in good-faith in your organization … and that includes decision making.

Once an organization and it’s culture supports that all decisions are made in good faith and with the best intentions, then what does the organization’s view on wrong decision become?  Well at that point, a wrong decision is a fact of life.  It’s a minor error.  It’s a venture down the wrong path that can be corrected.  It’s looked at as a learning experience without stigma.

But as decisions are pushed lower, the likelihood of decisions being divergent from the organization’s objectives increases.  As such, it’s is very important to establish a means to reduce the impact of these incorrect decisions.  One of the best means to reduce the impact of incorrect decisions is to experiment or prototype allowing you to collect more data rather than make decisions blindly.  Consider these as micro-decisions that, over time, result in the best decision possible over that period of time.  This concept is not new and is one of the goals of the ‘agile manifesto‘ and the subject of great literary works such as ‘Antifragile‘ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Combine this culture of experimentation with a culture of truth and trust, and what you get is a culture supportive of experimentation, embracing wrong decisions as learning venues, striving towards the best decisions without any concerns of stigma or loss of credibility.  It’s a culture that fully supports decision making and experimentation, on all levels of an organization.

Why Care about Decision Making

You may now be saying to yourself, or to me via your electronic device, ‘this is all nice, but why should I care?’  Good question!  Why should you care about decision making in your organization.

There are many values with increased decision making across your organization.  I decided to not dive too deep into this section and only highlight the values.  I figure if you’ve made it this far in this blog, you’re fairly convinced of the value.  If I’m wrong, feel free to comment below.

Here are some of the obvious values of increased decision making in all levels of an organization:

  • Decisions are needed to be made many times a day by different people with different functions.  The person with the most relevant information is usually the one dealing with the issue at hand resulting in them being the most credible person to make the decision, in most cases.
  • When decisions are enforced from above, it results in reduced engagement from employees who feel stifled in their roles.  Especially when the enforced decision ends up being a wrong one. Alternatively, decisions made by the team or individuals affected, are typically fully embraced, supported and quickly improved.
  • Less delays waiting on decisions to be made by the ‘select’ few that are allowed to make them.

Of course a lack of a decision making almost always results in a cost to the organization.  Most common symptoms are:

  • Wasted effort of team working on incorrect priorities
  • Unfocused efforts that could have been avoided if the decision had been made in the first place
  • Lack of team motivation due to wasted time and effort
  • Delays in projects due to wasted time and effort
  • Delays in product quality

It’s clear that all of these symptoms items have an associated cost, whether it’s monetary or not.  What’s more concerning, however, is that if these symptoms become systemic, they could result more serious organizational problems.

Enabling Decision Making

So what can you do in your organization to ensure that stakeholders are in a position to make decisions?  We talked about most of them.  But to help out, here are some steps that your organization can take to enable your decision makers.

1. Establish a Culture of Trust by Making Truth a Foundation of your business

I talk about this a lot and will continue to do so.  For more info on this – read my Truth blog.

2. Establish a Culture of Experimentation and Distributed Decision Making

As I mentioned earlier, strive for more experimentation allowing for distributed decision making in your organization.  Become anti fragile.  Establish agile principles and practices.  Strive for knowledge over correctness.  Correctness will eventually come with a lot of invaluable experience.

3. Establish a Framework for experimentation and decision making

It’s very important to define roles, responsibilities and authority within an organization.  It’s equally as  important to put together a framework that enables your key players to experiment and make decisions.  Combined with authority definition, this framework needs to define review processes and provide a guideline for experimentation and a venue for decision discussions with senior management.

4. Mentoring and Training

As in many aspects of business and personal life, mentoring and training go a long way in enabling an inexperienced person to learn.  This should be the case for future decision makers.  There are many approaches to mentoring and training and I will leave those for a future blog.  But the idea is to ensure that you’re providing the necessary support for your decision makers to increase their confidence and educate them on to make informed decision making.

I will end this simply by saying, focus on truth and trust, and the rest will come.  I always look forward to you comments on here or social media.

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