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Do you have a Decision Making Process?

Posted February 15, 2012 10:23 PM by Ted Jackson

Let me quickly describe a dysfunctional organization. It is one whose leadership team meets on a regular basis. Maybe they meet weekly for 1 hour or monthly for 2-4 hours or even quarterly for 4-8 hours. They talk about all the things that are important to their organization. They discuss all of the challenges and successes. They fret over the complex and difficult issues, and then they break for the day and meet back again the next time. This might not seem all that unfamiliar to you.

So where is the dysfunction, you ask? The problem is not that the organization has leadership fights. They do discuss important things when they are together. They just don't seem to accomplish anything. They are doing a variation of kicking the can down the road. The difficult issues are either not clearly defined, or the team doesn't have a real discussion about the options available. Sometimes, decisions are made, but then not communicated. Worse, they are made and then ignored by some of the people. When the bad behavior continues, the issue is put on the management agenda again, and discussed again...and again.

Organizations, especially leadership teams need a decision making process. Let me describe a few of them for you. I worked with a CEO two years ago who told his leadership team the following: "When we have a decision that needs to be made, I want all of you to tell me what you think. I want you to advocate for one side of the decision. Tell me, passionately, why you believe the decision should be made one way, and explain why the other way is wrong. After we have the discussion, I will make the decision. It is my decision to make, and I expect that you will fall in line behind me and execute on this decision, even if you were arguing for the other side of it. I want and respect your input at the front of the process, but there is only one vote for the decision...mine." This might not work for your organization, but it worked extremely well for theirs.

In another organization, they make decisions by consensus. This, I find, is rather common in some nonprofits. They discuss the issue, and they set a time to make a decision (well some set time parameters). Then they begin to vote and customize the decision until a majority (or supermajority) of the people agree with the decision. Sometimes it takes several meetings, but in the end, they have shared ownership of the decision, and they can all explain it and execute on it. While the typical complaint is that the process is slow, it also works for many organizations.

In your organization, you need to ensure you have a decision making process. It doesn't have to be the one below, but it needs to be one that works for your organization. I suggest that you have very clear steps and that you communicate these steps to all the people that need to be involved in the process. Here is a process that I particularly like:

  • Define the problem – frame the issue and the decision that needs to be made.
  • Provide context in advance – distribute as much information as you can in advance of a meeting so that the people that you want to participate can be educated on the subject.
  • Outline options – Try to determine 2-3 options and outline the pros and cons of each option. People struggle if they don't understand the choices they are trying to decide between.
  • Make a decision – Maybe the CEO decides, and maybe you do it by consensus. Usually it is somewhere in between.
  • Stick to it – Document the decision and communicate it to the organization. Reward good behavior and stem bad behavior so that the organization knows you are serious.

Try to implement this and see how it works. I'll explain how to link this process to the Balanced Scorecard in a later post.