Faster, Better Decisions
There is a quality that can set a great organization apart from the rest: the ability to make bold, effective decisions in difficult and uncertain times. As you’d expect, it starts with the leader. After all, leaders are deciders. Yet many leaders struggle with this essential duty - making the decision and asking people to commit.
A fundamental role of leaders is to provide clarity and closure to matters that are unclear and unresolved. The higher the stakes, the greater the need for high-quality decision-making. These are matters that are high-cost, high-risk, far-reaching and broadly impactful on customers and employees. In addition to these high stakes, we need to consider the urgency: do we need a timely decision now, or a better one later?
I can already hear some people’s reactions. Aren’t leaders supposed to empower others to decide? Isn’t the goal to be data-driven? Shouldn’t we allow room for more alternative viewpoints? Do we, in fact, need to decide right now? Can’t some matters be left open-ended to allow for flexibility and spontaneity? Emphatically "yes" on all accounts. But please see how even the choice to delegate a decision, to dig deeper into the numbers or opinions, or to leave something undecided is, in itself, a decision. One of the kindest actions a leader can take is to revisit the “open issues” that are creating ambiguity in their organization and decide how, where, and when to bring these matters to closure.
Leaders cannot avoid this reality: failure to decide is a decision. It’s an abdication of a responsibility and one that essentially forfeits the role of leader. As my father used to say, “when the right people won’t do the work, the wrong people will… because the work must get done.”
Those who want to lead more effectively by making faster, better decisions must first overcome four fears:
The fear of being wrong may push us into paralysis-mode, while the desire for certainty pushes us to over-gather, over-analyze and endlessly spin on potential scenarios. Data can be helpful in narrowing options, but most risky decisions involve, well, risk. So, at some point, we must rely on informed intuition. When you find yourself hesitating, ask your team for an honest gut-check. If this was all the information we had, what decision would we make? The military teaches young commanders the 70% rule: when you have about 70% of the facts/data you think you need, or can reasonably obtain, it’s time to act. Striving for more than 70% leads to potentially costly delay. Going with less leads to carelessness. I often push teams with this question: What’s the boldest decision we can make today with the information we have?
The fear of inefficiency - either of the process or timing - may push us prematurely into decision-announcing mode vs. decision-making mode. This often leads to an artificial narrowing of options, a lack of innovation and a lack of followership. When you find yourself tending to announce your decisions to the team rather than making your decisions with the team, watch out. You may be guilty of leaving insights and options unexplored. While this may slow down the process, it may increase the quality of, and commitment to, the decision itself.
The fear of being disliked may push us too far into consensus-building mode. Wanting everyone to agree or be excited about the decision (and us) can lead to an excessive amount of opinion-sharing. The goal of a discussion is not to convince, but rather, to learn. Make it safe to disagree by asking more open-ended questions. Draw people out and don’t allow them to hold back to avoid artificial harmony. Restate the contrasting views and what you’re learning. Explore options and potential unintended consequences. If a general agreement around one idea doesn’t happen, then have the courage to make the call and ask for full commitment from the team.
The fear of looking foolish may push us into defensive-mode. Wanting to be right or avoiding being embarrassed by being wrong, can lead us to defensiveness which may cause us to reject opposing opinions. There is a difference between being decisive and being closed-minded. Decisive leaders remains curious and open-minded by actively seeking out contrary views or thoughtful implications. They want to make the best decision, even if that means changing one’s mind humbly and publicly.
Humble leaders are capable of driving higher quality decisions. Knowing they can be wrong, they solicit more input and ensure all the options and insights are on the table. Humble leaders make it safe for others to share their views.
Courageous leaders are capable of driving more timely decisions. Fearing inaction more than wrong action, they wear the responsibility of a decider like a heavy backpack. They push their teams to be bold.
Faster, better decisions. I didn’t say perfect decisions, just faster and better. As Alan Mulaly, the CEO who led the turnaround of Ford after 2008 once said, “I don’t think of it as failure. I see it as: we make a plan, then work the plan. If the plan is not working, we make a new plan.”
Be humble. Be courageous. Identify and work through your fears. Your team is counting on you to make faster, better decisions that will lead to more opportunity and success for everyone!
Keith Hadley, Table Group Principal Consultant