Decisions, Decisions

How are decisions made in your organization? Many organizations simply assume a hierarchical chain of command that is reflected in position power: Staff report to supervisors, who report to Directors, who report to VPs, up to the CEO. Decisions are made by those “up the food chain,” and the jobs of those below are to comply and implement those decisions. We accept this structure and its natural consequences as if it were preordained by some inexorable power or divinity. 

This approach persists despite well-known and understood realities of organization life:

  • Decisions are often best made by those closest to the impact of the decision;
  • Consultation and collaboration lead to better quality solutions to problems and decisions regarding those problems; and  
  • Customers are best served when staff are empowered to quickly respond and address issues as they are faced.

What alternatives exist to this dominant model? While we could radically and fundamentally change decision-making through an approach like the Holacracy model (now famously implemented at Zappos Shoes, among other companies),10 there are more incremental approaches that can be readily integrated into our current structures. A few considerations:

Decision-Making Methods

I like to consider a spectrum of decision-making options available to address any given issue. Over time, groups can readily discern the types of issues that are best addressed by a given approach, and place them in “decision baskets” so everyone transparently understands how they will be decided. Each method can have an appropriate application if wisely matched to circumstances and needs. For example, we might delegate technical decisions to specialists on a given issue, and they might seek consensus on highly important questions before acting upon them. On other questions, we might seek full staff advice, but after consultation a manager might make the decision. Teams need to assess the situation and consult with others; the choice of decision-making method is often a group’s first important decision. By being transparent about which types of issues fall within each basket, trust and clarity are engendered. If issues arise that are beyond the anticipated sets of issues, there is a clear process by which such challenges are assigned to a basket for resolution. 

We also need to create opportunities for groups to make their best decisions. This requires us to navigate what Sam Kaner calls the “Groan Zone,”11 that phase of the process where everyone is so tired of deliberating that they want to give up and make a decision. But the Groan Zone is also an important learning opportunity, for it is through the strange ideas that come from unanticipated people, we find the nuggets that form innovative solutions. We must respect the capacity of the group to determine its best course of action, and by clarifying the appropriate approaches to decision-making around a given issue, channel energy more constructively and transparently.

Decision TypePlainly SpokenStrengths & Weaknesses
Autocratic“I am The Decider.”S: Clear, efficient.
W: Isolated from outside perspectives. Others may feel disenfranchised.
Consultative“What do you think? I want to hear from you before I make a decision.”S: Clear, includes more perspectives, but still can be efficient. Increased ownership of decision.
W: Consultations can go on endlessly and still people may feel excluded. Decisions can get lost among other priorities.
Persuasive Minority (Political)“We may be a small group, but we are influential and persistent.”S: Passionate stakeholders are engaged and influential, so their interests are addressed…this can help with implementation.
W: Majority views and expertise are excluded or overlooked.
Expert (Technocratic)“Let’s use an expert panel and have them decide.”S: Evidence-based decisions that are defensible and documented. More likely to be objective and have credibility, as such.
W: Some may question biases and expertise, possibly feel some types of experience are excluded.
Averaging (Compromise)“Let’s compromise and pick a mid-point.”S: Efficiently moves forward on contentious issues. Satisfactory to most people.
W: Perspectives remain positional, as underlying needs and concerns go unaddressed.
Majority Rules“Let’s vote and let the majority decide.”S: Clear, efficient, inclusive of all with ‘standing.’ Most people satisfied.
Positions remain positional and minority may feel resentment.
Consensus“Let’s talk things through until all are satisfied with the decision.”S: Thorough, inclusive, focuses on underlying concerns. Often results in superior decisions and broad ownership to implement.
W: Time-consuming. Can have “tyranny of mediocrity” shadow when some become exhausted with the process.
No Decision (Null)“Whatever happened? No decision seems to have been made”S: Whatever the natural consequences are, they happen. Those whose interests prefer no decision are satisfied.
W: Many are dissatisfied and disillusioned, taking a toll on interest in future participation.
Decision Making Grid

Exercise: Align Decision-Making Approaches with What is Needed        

WHO: Solo           

WHY: To clarify the current state of decision-making in your organization, from which we may explore other options. 

HOW: 

Step 1: Identify “decision baskets” that readily batch various types of decisions into transparent processes for their resolution. Some decisions will be by consensus, some by majority rule, some by delegated and recognized subject matter experts (SME’s), some by those with hierarchical position power as managers, some independently by individuals charged with a scope of work. 

Step 2: Relate your responses here to those of the previous exercises we’ve been discussing regarding Communication: How might these two factors be addressed so that more transparent, inclusive Communication may be used to support effective Decision-Making? 

Published by Harry Webne-Behrman

Harry Webne-Behrman is a consultant, facilitator, mediator, educator living in Ottawa, Ontario. Bringing vast experience to organizational challenges, specializing in complex conflicts, Harry offers coaching and consulting to people seeking to provide leadership to their organizations and communities on a wide range of issues.

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