Saturday, October 18, 2008

Decisions, Decisions

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The motto for Pathfinder Communication is “Better Communication, Better Decisions, Better Results”. I have dedicated most of the articles to communication. This one is about decisions.

There are generally four ways to make a decision in business, with minor variations depending upon which text you read. Here are the four:

1. Command (We are told what to do)
2. Consultation (We are asked for input before someone else decides)
3. Vote (Majority rules)
4. Consensus (Everyone agrees to a decision)

A Command decision is the kind that is typically handed down (“we need to work this weekend”) from a superior to a subordinate. It is distinguished by the fact that there is no give-and-take to between the superior and the subordinate in it formulation. That is its greatest weakness. Its greatest strength is the speed at which it can be made – instantly. It can be used where it is very unlikely that more information is going to influence the quality of the decision (if the boat is sinking, there is likely no amount of debate that will yield a decision other than “Abandon Ship!”). This is best for simple decisions needed quickly in which buy-in is not a great concern, or is automatic (like the sinking ship example).

In order to make a command decision a bit easier for a subordinate to accept, the decision maker should try to leave some elements flexible (what hours we will work this weekend, splitting shifts, bringing kids to work) and the subordinate should always ask which elements are flexible.

A Consultative decision is one in which the decision maker gathers ideas, evaluates the options, makes a choice, and then reports the decision. This is another way to arrive at a decision quickly and has the added strength of utilizing more than just the decision maker’s information. This is best when 1) the consequences of the decision will lie solely with the decision maker 2) buy in is not the highest priority 3) the problem is more complex; 4) the topic is not strictly in the decision maker’s field of expertise, and so on.

In deciding between a consultative or command decision, remember NOT to pretend you are consulting when you have already made up your mind. Likewise, do not use intimidation to drive a person to give you a certain opinion. The people with whom you consult will not feel valued if you do either of these things. Also, announce that you are consulting from the beginning so that others don’t feel that your decision has to include their point of view. They are just providing ideas and offering options – you are deciding.

Voting is a familiar way of making a decision, but not widely used in business. It is most likely to produce a good result when the team that is voting is responsible for the consequences of the decision, and when the team is well-versed in the differences between the options being voted on AND share a vision of what a desirable end result would be. It is important that all options are pre-screened so that they are all acceptable. That is, there is no option that any team member would not support if it were selected. Voting is a fast way to get a group decision on a subject with a few, roughly equivalent choices. Remember that after a vote, there are winners and losers. The losers should not be made to feel like outcasts for not agreeing with the majority opinion.

A Consensus decision is one in which everyone agrees to support the final decision. It is used for high stakes and complex issues. Consensus requires debate and, as a result, is not about everyone getting their 1st choice. It is about UNITING a group behind a decision and usually is the slowest of all of the methods. Its great strength is that all members of the group contribute to the collaboration and end up with an equal share of the responsibility for the consequences of a complex decision. Its great weakness is the relatively long time it takes and the high level of communication skills required to arrive at a consensus.

In the making of a consensus decision, there can be no “martyrs”; each consensus is independent and each participant in the final decision must participate actively in the collaboration. After a consensus decision is made, there can be no private post-decision lobbying, and no “I told you so”.

Who should be involved in making decisions? Just answer the following four questions:

1. Who has a stake?
- Don’t involve people that aren’t affected or don’t care
2. Who has information?
- Invite people with expertise or information
3. Who must agree?
- Those whose cooperation is beneficial and relevant
- You do NOT want influential people to be surprised by a decision and then be openly resistant
4. How many to involve?
- The minimum set to get a good decision and sufficient commitment

Finally, after the decision is made, understand the WWWF (Who, What, When, and Follow-up). Document a plan that is only as formal and complex as needed. Include interim follow-up actions so that as you implement the decision, you can see that it is unfolding as expected. Surprises in the implementation may be an indicator that the decision needs further consideration.

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