Like a rock rolling down hill, you want to get the mass of your organization moving quickly in the right direction.
Every business has mass, which is a measure of its resistance to change. The challenge in getting an organization to change direction is the fact that its mass isn’t neatly self-contained. Rather, it’s scattered throughout its people, systems, structures, and processes – and the collective inertia causes resistance to change. In order to get the organization to execute on its strategy, you’ve got to get the mass contained and headed in one direction.
Having aligned vision and values, as well as an aligned organizational structure, is the first step. If you have misalignment in these areas, then no matter what, you’re not going to get very far. At the same time, alignment in vision, values, and structure alone won’t cause the business to move. They just help to hold the mass together and keep internal friction low. Making the organization come alive and move quickly in a chosen direction requires that two things be done well: making and implementing decisions. In fact, the secret to organizational momentum lies in continually making good decisions and implementing them quickly.
The Most Important Process in Your Business
Every business relies on multiple processes (sales, customer service, finance, product development, marketing, etc.). These can be highly visible or nearly invisible, organic, haphazard, detailed, flexible, constant, or changing and either a boon or a burden. When a process is performing well, it allows the work to get done better and faster. When it’s not, you feel like you’re swimming upstream.
While your business has many different processes – some working well and others maybe a total clusterf#@*k – it’s the process of decision making and implementation that’s most critical to your success. Why? Because at the most fundamental level, a business is simply a decision-making and implementation system. Think about it — every problem and opportunity require a decision to be made (and yes, deciding to do nothing is a decision too) and a solution to be implemented. If the business does this well — if it continually makes good decisions and implements them fast — then its momentum will increase and it will be successful. If it does the opposite — if it makes bad decisions, or if it makes good decisions but implements them slowly, or my personal favorite, makes bad decisions and implements them quickly — then it will fail. Just as a haphazard sales process results in lost sales, poor fulfillment, and an inability to scale, a poor decision-making and implementation process results in poor decisions, flawed implementations, and an inability to scale the business.
What’s ironic about the process of decision making and implementation is that most businesses don’t even think of it as a process. (In case you’re asking… decision making and implementation are not two distinct things. They’re really two parts of one process that must go hand in hand. More on this in a bit.) While there’s usually a recognized process for functions like sales and customer service, the process for decision making and implementation is hidden in plain sight and often operating haphazardly. Like many of the principles I discuss in my work, it’s a crucial meta-level process with important applications all across the board.
In order to help your business accelerate its execution speed, I’m going to explain what an effective decision-making and implementation process is, how to do it well, who should be involved, and when to use it.
What Does an Effective Decision-Making and Implementation Process Look Like?
I want to give you an immediate sense of what the process of making good decisions and implementing them quickly actually looks like by sharing a short movie clip. I call it the “Dances with Wolves Management Meeting.” There’s a lot that modern-day management team meetings can learn from it. Unless you speak Sioux, you won’t understand what they’re saying – and it doesn’t matter. As they say, 90% of communication is non-verbal. The gist is that the senior tribe members have gathered to discuss what to do about foreigners invading their territory. You can compare that to any company faced with a cataclysmic market change and struggling with what to do about it.
Dances with Wolves Management Meeting from Lex Sisney on Vimeo.
Here’s what I want you to notice about the clip:
1) Notice that there’s a lot of conflict. People in the meeting have really strong opinions and don’t hold back in sharing them. Notice too that the conflict doesn’t destroy the affinity that tribe members have for one another. They’re debating the merits of different approaches in an attempt to find the best one. They don’t hold back but they’re not attacking each other, either. Each person has their say. When a person is speaking, each member seems to be genuinely listening and considering that perspective.
2) Notice that there’s one decision maker. It’s the wizened chief who sits back and listens until he’s heard enough perspectives. He gives plenty of time to review the information and generate insights from that information. But once that process is complete and the chief decides, the entire tribe gets behind the decision. There’s full debate pre-decision, no debate post-decision. Put another way, the meeting was fully participative but not democratic — there’s one person ultimately in charge. Once the decision is made, it’s time to stop debating and start executing.
3) Notice that it’s hard to figure out what to do. Life was complicated then. It’s even more complicated now. It’s hard to make good decisions. Despite the fact that it’s a critical decision, however, the chief doesn’t get excited or agitated. He’s calm; he’s cool; he listens. Then he decides and people act. While you may disagree with their decision, you’ll have a hard time disagreeing with the process the tribe used to reach it (other than they should have made a concerted effort to get more data up front — but more on the importance of data gathering in a bit).
4) Notice that the meeting has all the key influencers and centers of power in attendance. The chief and the tribe intuitively recognize a universal truth: Whoever is going to be impacted downstream by a decision, should be involved upstream in the decision-making process itself. Why? When people fully participate in the decision-making process, they’re less resistant to the implementation of its outcomes. In fact, they’re usually in favor of those outcomes and eagerly want to drive them forward. Imagine, on the other hand, if the chief skipped this meeting and decided what to do in isolation or with a few elders. Whatever the decision, the collective mass of the rest of the tribe would have slowed down or resisted, subtly or not so subtly, the implementation. Members of the tribe would have questioned, doubted, and disagreed (e.g., “Why are we fighting?” Or “Why are we fleeing?”). By involving a critical mass of the tribe up front in the decision itself, the resistance to change was much lower post-decision and implementation swifter.
5) Notice that the meeting doesn’t linger. The tribe gathers together. They’re all present and engaged. They invest as much time as they need and no more. Then they wrap. I’m willing to bet that most of your management meetings aren’t run nearly as efficiently.
The Rhythm of Decision Making and Implementation
There’s a rhythm to decision making and implementation. Most organizations screw it up, so pay attention. The right rhythm is slow-quick. It’s not quick-slow or quick-quick – and it’s clearly not slow-slow. What do I mean? Slow-quick means that you spend adequate time in making a good decision and then fly like a rocket on implementation. Don’t do the opposite. In other words, don’t make half-baked rapid-fire decisions that get bogged down on implementation. Don’t be that company that confuses rapid decision making with rapid implementation. And don’t be that company that’s just bogged down and lethargic generally. There’s a rhythm to life, a rhythm to dance, a rhythm to decision making and implementation. Be astute and aware enough to know which rhythm to activate and when.
The most common reason companies get this rhythm wrong is time pressure. You need to be able to transcend time pressure in the decision-making phase of the process and then use it to your advantage during the implementation phase. Allow me to explain. Constant time pressure results in poor decisions. When a company’s leadership feels a tremendous amount of pressure to execute quickly in a nebulous environment – and there’s a feeling that doing something is better than doing nothing – it will tend to make half-baked, rapid-fire decisions. This approach is a classic folly because the team fails to see the complete picture before them. Under time pressure, it fails to take into account different perspectives, gather enough information, get buy-in, find new insights in the data, make a well-rounded decision, and reinforce it. The result is a poor decision that gets bogged down on implementation. The team tries to go quick-quick but the result is quick-slow.
When we're under time pressure, the full picture looks like this. The results is poor decisions and slow or flawed implementations.
Make decisions once a critical mass of the company contributes to everyone to seeing the full picture. The result will be really fast implementation.
If you’ve ever worked in a “fire-ready-aim” setting, then you already know that making rapid-fire decisions doesn’t result in faster execution speed – which you do want. What happens instead is that a lot of half-baked decisions get rattled off, pile up, and create bottlenecks on implementation. And unlike decision making, implementation is where you want to use time pressure to your advantage, setting clear outcomes and delivery dates. It’s not how fast you’re deciding, it’s how fast you’re implementing on a well-formed solution.
Many startup founders will change their strategy from one moment to the next, justifying this with something like, “We have to be nimble around here. The market is always shifting and we’re trying to find our footing. We need to fail fast and keep trying. If you can’t keep up, get off the boat.” This is a perfect example of how the concept “fail fast” is often misunderstood. “Fail fast” is an expression used in high-tech startups. It means that, in environments with rapid change and time pressure, you can only find answers in the real world, not on a white board. You therefore want to get the product released promptly and tested in the hands of actual customers because this allows you to better understand their needs. If the product “fails,” this is seen as net positive (assuming client expectations are managed) because it eliminates more uncertainty about what doesn’t work and you can test again based on better information. However, “fail fast” isn’t a creed you use to keep making poor, ill-formed decisions time and again. It means that you need to implement a good decision fast. It’s a slogan for swift implementation, not erratic decision making.
Of course it’s not only startups that suffer from fast decision making and poor implementations. A recent prominent example is NetFlix. In 2011, NetFlix announced that it would segment its business into two distinct brands, one focused on streaming (NetFlix) and the other on DVD delivery (Qwikster). Reed Hastings, the company CEO, was right in my opinion to attempt to restructure the business into two distinct business units (see Strategy). But in their quest to hurry a decision, they screwed up the implementation. They didn’t set up a process to communicate and manage expectations with their customer base and key influencers; they didn’t acquire the social media identifiers for Qwikster; and they didn’t recognize that customers would balk at having two logins without a process to make it easy for them. The resulting market backlash really hurt them – cutting their market cap in half. Reed Hastings was later quoted as saying, “We simply moved too quickly, and that’s where you get those missed execution details. It’s causing, as you would expect, an internal reflectiveness. We know that we need to do better going forward. We need to take a few deep breaths and not move quite as quickly. But we also don’t want to overcorrect and start moving stodgily.”
That’s exactly right.
The truth is that fast execution requires a good decision-making process up front – and effective decision making takes time! It takes time to gather the right people, set the stage, gather data, generate insights, decide what to do, assign action items, and reinforce the decision. It’s counterintuitive but the right path forward is to slow down on the decision-making so that you can speed up on the implementation. In other words, you slow down to go fast.
Of course, this all presupposes that you actually have the time. If it’s a real crisis, then you’ll need to act swiftly and try to reduce the negative fallout later. But whatever you do, don’t confuse acting swiftly with acting smartly.
The Steps to an Effective Decision-Making and Implementation Process
There are six steps to effective decision making that are based on the agile development methodology of the Agile Alliance.1 The pre-step is based on the notion of “CAPI” or coalesced authority, power, and influence developed by Ichak Adizes and is what allows for fast implementation.2 Here’s how all the steps work together.
|Pre-step||Get the Right People in the Room|
|Step #1||Set the Stage|
|Step #2||Gather Data|
|Step #3||Generate Insights|
|Step #4||Decide What to Do|
|Step #5||Assign Action Steps|
Pre-Step: Get the Right People in the Room
There’s a really simple rule of thumb to remember for good decision making and fast implementation: Identify who will be impacted by a decision downstream, and involve them upstream in the decision-making process. Intuitively, this makes sense. In your own life, would you prefer to personally decide what to do or have someone tell you what to do? When you’re given an opportunity to genuinely participate in a decision-making process, not only do you help to create a better decision through your unique insights, but you also become more willing to implement the decision itself. You feel a greater sense of ownership and less resistance to change.
Gathering a critical mass in the company – and specifically those who will be impacted downstream by a decision – also leads to better outcomes because different people see different pieces of the full picture. Each person impacted has a unique perspective on the problem or opportunity: One sees what to do; another has information on how to do it; another can see new ways to accomplish the same task; and yet another can empathize with how others will be impacted. Each person brings different information, experience, and knowledge to bear on the problem or opportunity, contributing to everyone seeing the full picture.
Here’s a funny story of a CEO who failed to gather in the decision-making process upstream those who would be impacted downstream. I’m not sure where it originates but I have to believe there’s some truth to it because it sounds all too common. It goes like this….
“A toothpaste factory had a problem: they sometimes shipped empty boxes, without the tube inside. This was due to the way the production line was set up, and people with experience in designing production lines will tell you how difficult it is to have everything happen with timings so precise that every single unit coming out of it is perfect 100% of the time. Small variations in the environment (which can’t be controlled in a cost-effective fashion) mean you must have quality assurance checks smartly distributed across the line so that customers all the way down the supermarket don’t get pissed off and buy someone else’s product instead.
Understanding how important that was, the CEO of the toothpaste factory got the top people in the company together and they decided to start a new project, in which they would hire an external engineering company to solve their empty boxes problem, as their engineering department was already too stretched to take on any extra effort.
The project followed the usual process: budget and project sponsor allocated, RFP, third-parties selected, and six months (and $8 million) later they had a fantastic solution — on time, on budget, high quality and everyone in the project had a great time. They solved the problem by using some high-tech precision scales that would sound a bell and flash lights whenever a toothpaste box weighing less than it should. The line would stop, and someone had to walk over and yank the defective box out of it, pressing another button when done.
A while later, the CEO decides to have a look at the ROI of the project: amazing results! No empty boxes ever shipped out of the factory after the scales were put in place. Very few customer complaints, and they were gaining market share. “That’s some money well spent!” – he says, before looking closely at the other statistics in the report.
It turns out, the number of defects picked up by the scales was 0 after three weeks of production use. It should’ve been picking up at least a dozen a day, so maybe there was something wrong with the report. He filed a bug against it, and after some investigation, the engineers come back saying the report was actually correct. The scales really weren’t picking up any defects, because all boxes that got to that point in the conveyor belt were good.
Puzzled, the CEO travels down to the factory, and walks up to the part of the line where the precision scales were installed. A few feet before it, there was a $20 desk fan, blowing the empty boxes out of the belt and into a bin. “Oh, that — one of the guys put it there ’cause he was tired of walking over every time the bell rang”, says one of the workers.”
You wouldn’t be reading this story if the CEO had first actually taken the time to include the shop floor workers — those who would be most impacted by the decision — in the decision-making process itself. If he had, he likely would have saved 6 months and $7,999,980! But clearly it is neither time- nor cost-effective in most instances to gather every individual who will be impacted downstream by a decision upstream in the decision-making process. That’s why a country uses a representative democracy, why a public company uses a board of directors, or why parents are the legal guardians of their children. These gather the mass and centralize the decision making into one representative body. The same is true for your organization. It has a critical mass that can represent the rest of the company.
So who do you gather in? The fact is that, in order to effect change, you must gather only the minimum amount of critical mass into the decision-making process – and that includes only those with authority, power, and influence over the implementation.
According to Ichak Adizes, authority is the legal right to decide “yes” and “no.” Many people can say “no” in an organization but very few can actually say “yes.” Think of authority like a crown and scepter. Whoever wears the crown has the authority to say “yes” and “no” within the context of what you want to achieve. In politics, the President has authority to sign a bill in to law or to veto it. That’s a “yes” or a “no.” In baseball, an umpire has authority to call balls and strikes. That’s a “yes” or a “no” too. In a trial, the jury has the authority to decide guilt or innocence. Wherever you observe the ability to say “yes” and “no,” that’s authority.
To gather authority, you’ve got to get at least the lowest level of authority involved in the decision-making process. For example, imagine a Director of Operations who is charged with improving efficiency in a production line. There’s a new machine that the Director wants to purchase. If she goes and asks the VP of Finance for the money, the VP of Finance can say, “No, sorry, it’s not in the budget.” Or, “No, you need to get approval from the budget committee first.” But notice how the VP of Finance cannot also say, “Yes, here’s your check” without additional authority being granted from somewhere else. Therefore, the VP of Finance has no authority over this particular decision.
Don’t confuse those who can say “yes” but not “no” with authority, either. In this case, the Director brings the purchase request to a budgetary committee. The budgetary committee can only endorse items that are within the budget and that fit the budgetary guidelines. That is, if it’s within the budget and fits the budgetary guidelines, and there are no errors on the requisition, then the budgetary committee must say “yes.” They have no authority to also say “no.” If the Director does get budgetary committee approval, she may mistakenly believe that she’s gotten authority for the project. She hasn’t.
Instead, to gather authority, the Director must seek out who can actually say “yes” and “no” to the purchase and involve him or her up front in the decision-making process. In this case, it may be herself (if the authority was granted to her by the CEO) or, if not, then it’s the CEO. If she fails to do this, then she’ll never have a clear indication of where the project really stands. If she’s smart, and if the decision is important, she’ll involve the person with authority to say “yes” and “no” in the decision-making process itself.
Power is the ability to help or hinder. Think of power like a lever, whereby those who have power over implementation can effectively help lever you up or lever you down. Power exists throughout the organization, not just at the top. For example, in politics, the President has authority but Congress has power. It can help or hinder the President’s agenda. Even though you’re a parent and have the authority to say “yes” or “no,” your kids certainly have power in that they can help or hinder how you run the family. A CEO of a Fortune 500 company may seem to possess a lot of power, and they do, but if you look closely, you’ll see that the power also exists within the unions, customers, media, and management team – all of which can help or hinder the CEO’s agenda.
To gather power, recognize who can help or hinder the implementation of your objective and involve them up front in the decision-making process. Returning to the previous example, who might help or hinder the Director of Operation’s desire to improve efficiency? In addition to the Director’s boss, this would also include the staff who work on the production line, design the systems, and perform maintenance. Involving those with power up front will generally contribute to a better decision, which becomes their own. For example, it may be that a new machine isn’t required to improve efficiency. Perhaps someone on the production line has a creative solution. But if a new machine is required, then those who will be responsible for using it can help to choose the right one, based on their firsthand experience, and they won’t resist it like they would if it was purchased and installed out of the blue. Asking those who will have to use a piece of equipment in their daily work for their opinion on features may seem blindingly obvious. But it’s often overlooked like the example in the toothpaste factory.
Influence is the ability to get what you want without relying on authority or power. Think of influence like a pulpit. Individuals with a great deal of influence rely on who they are, who they know, and what they say. For example, a politician on the campaign trail is attempting to gain votes through influence. A company launching a marketing campaign to impact brand awareness and buying behavior is also working through influence. When a salesperson is meeting with a prospect, they’re also attempting to use influence to activate the prospect’s authority to purchase.
To gather influence, you should recognize who has influence over the implementation and involve them up front in the decision-making process as well. Who can influence, positively or negatively, the Director of Operation’s desire to improve efficiency and purchase a new machine? There’s the influence of the boss and staff. There’s also the influence of industry experts, case studies, and other buyers’ testimonials. For example, if the Director hires an industry consultant to assess the situation and make a recommendation, the consultant has influence over the outcome, but no authority or real power.
To drive this concept of gathering authority, power, and influence home, imagine that the circle below represents the size of the task that you want to accomplish. If it’s a small task that you can do yourself, then you already have the authority, power, and influence coalesced and there’s no need to involve anyone else. Just go do the task. But if this is a “big task,” this generally means that the mass of authority, power, and influence are spread out. There’s a lot of mass that must first be coalesced into the decision-making process itself.
If your task is big, then you'll need to gather in the authority, power, and influence to make it happen.
If you don’t gather in the mass, the resistance to change remains high; poor decisions get made because they lack vital inputs from those impacted by the decision; and implementation gets bogged down. Conversely, if you gather in the mass first, two things happen: 1) Better decisions are made because they take into account multiple different perspectives and interests and 2) Implementation is swift because a critical mass within the organization has adopted the decision as their own (assuming a good decision-making process was followed, there’s alignment in vision and values, and the structure is well designed) and they’ll collectively drive it forward. To use a physics analogy, if you first coalesce the organizational mass, then you can “hit” it with a force of change and it will quickly accelerate in a new direction.
Once you've gathered in the mass of authority, power, and influence, it's much easier to enact a change.
Now that you’re familiar with the basic concepts of authority, power, and influence, you can see their effects everywhere you look. In a courtroom, the judge has power to decide what is admissible as evidence. The jurors have authority to decide a verdict. The lawyers rely on influence to sway the jury. Each side calls in witnesses that can help or hinder their case. In high-level selling, one of the first questions an experienced salesperson will ask is, “Who has authority to make a decision?” Then, if they’re smart, they will do their best to get that person involved in the entire selling process. But if there’s a strong gatekeeper, the salesperson suffers from sleepless nights because they must rely purely on influencing others who in turn will hopefully influence the final authority. Successful salespeople usually have powerful networks of contacts (people who can help or hinder them in making introductions) and have mastered the art of influence to sway buyer behavior. And great salespeople always sell to the decision-maker directly.
To gather authority, power, and influence literally means to get everyone in the same room (or at least on the same phone call) and to follow the 6 steps of effective decision-making as a team. It does not mean to periodically ping the authority, power, and influence and update them on your progress. Nor does it mean to inform them once a decision has been made. To reduce the resistance to change, you need to involve them in the decision-making process itself. Why can’t you periodically just ping the authority, power, and influence of your progress? For the same reason that lawyers do not conduct a jury trial independently and then report their findings for the jury to decide upon. A fair trial couldn’t work this way. The coalesced authority, power, and influence must all participate in the decision-making process firsthand. Notice too that, if a jury member, lawyer, or judge can’t make the day of the trial, then the trial is postponed. Similarly, if you can’t get the authority, power, and influence in the room or on the phone at the same time, you would be well served to postpone the meeting to a later date. If you try to press ahead, you’ll likely end up increasing the resistance to change, not decreasing it.
Step 1: Set the Stage
Once you’ve identified and gathered in the mass of authority, power, and influence, you need to set the stage of the decision-making process. Setting the stage means getting everyone in the room on the same page about why the meeting or project is taking place, the desired outcomes, the participants’ roles and responsibilities (including who has authority to make the final yes/no decision), and the rules and expectations for the process. Because time pressure is the enemy of effective decision making, one of the most important things you can do when setting the stage is to create the right environment for the best decision to unfold. This requires unfreezing the group, getting initial buy-in to the problem/opportunity, and running efficient and timely meetings.
One of the most important parts of setting the stage is easy to do but often mistakenly skipped. What is it? It’s what the founder of organizational psychology, Kurt Lewin, called “unfreezing.” What Lewin recognized in the early 1900s is that inertia exists within people just as it exists within objects. Basically, when you and I show up to a meeting, our bodies are present but our minds are not. Instead, we’re stuck in a mental inertia still thinking about something else. The last phone call we were on. The emails we just received. A family or personal issue. The work we still need to accomplish. The hot girl or guy we fantasize about. We’re hungry. Whatever. The list is infinite.
The only purpose of having a meeting is to have the team participate through the process as one unit, through which each participant brings their whole being, experience, knowledge, and awareness to the task at hand. This requires everyone involved to first unlock or unfreeze their mental inertia — to create a sense of space or mental capacity to focus on the task and embody a future change. If this was true in the early 1900s, its even more true in our faster-paced times.
It’s actually pretty easy to unfreeze a group as long as you take a few minutes to do it. How? The simplest way is to get each participant to talk out loud. Just say something. Anything. It could be as simple as “How was your weekend?” to “What is costing your energy right now?” to “Ready?” What you’ll notice is that it doesn’t matter so much what the question is as it does for each participant to say something out loud. For example, I was facilitating a workshop this week and after the group returned from a short break I asked each person in turn, “Are you ready to continue?” One participant responded, “No, I’m not. I just got a really bad phone call about a deal I was trying to close. I’m devastated.” He sat there for a few more moments, then he said, “OK, now that I cleared that out loud, I’m ready to go.” Speaking out loud will always help to shift energy in a person and bring more presence to the task at hand.
Getting Initial Buy-in to the Problem or Opportunity
In addition to unfreezing the group, you’ll want to help set the stage by ensuring that the group has a unified vision of what it’s trying to accomplish. I recommend that you tie the desired outcomes for the team and/or project into the personal desired outcomes of the individual participants. One way to do this is to simply ask each person, “What is the desired outcome for this meeting (or this project) for you personally?” and write down his or her response. Then once each person has had a chance to state his or her desired outcomes, make sure that all the desired outcomes are aligned and attainable and if not, address them up front accordingly. “This one seems out of scope for this particular project. What do you guys think?” Once you’ve got alignment on desired outcomes, people should be clear and eager to dive into the process.
The reason I suggest you ask participants about personal desired outcome is that, when we have a personal interest in something, we’re much more engaged in attaining it. Often people show up to a meeting with no clear idea why they are there in the first place. By asking “what’s in it for you?” you’ll help them to reflect on and clarify what any potential rewards may be. “Hmmm, you know, I’d like to learn more about how XYZ works.” Or, “I’d like to be part of a kick-ass team that really produces results.” If a person has no personal desired outcome related to this meeting and/or project, it’s a sign that they probably shouldn’t be in that meeting.
Running Efficient and Timely Meetings
When it comes to setting expectations on time management in the decision-making process, here are some guidelines. Most of the time spent in decision making is invested in Steps 1 to 3 (Setting the Stage, Gathering Data, and Generating Insights). Once this is accomplished, it’s pretty straightforward to complete Step 4 (Deciding What to Do) and Step 5 (Assigning Action Steps for Implementation). A general rule of thumb is to invest 80% of the time in Steps 1 through 3 and 20% of the time in Steps 4 through 6. That means in an hour-long meeting, 42 minutes would be allocated to setting the stage, gathering facts and generating insights and just 18 minutes to deciding what to do, assigning action steps, and integration. If you feel that 18 minutes is not enough time to decide what to do, assign action steps, and integrate, it’s a clear indication that you’ll need to schedule a longer meeting. But don’t skimp on the first three steps. That’s where most of your time investment should occur. If you do skimp, it will come back to bite you through poor decisions and flawed implementations.
My grandfather used to say that the mind can only handle what the seat can endure. Speaking as a person who has a hard time sitting long periods, I concur. My favorite way to handle this is to run 75-minute team sessions with a 5 to 15 minute break in between. This allows enough time for the group to make meaningful progress. At the same time, it allows the group enough space and personal freedom to restore the body, check their email, make a phone call, etc. Get agreement from the group up front about the time frames in which you’ll run sessions and breaks. This will allow participants to focus on the task at hand.
Just a couple of words of advice. You need to be disciplined in time and flexible in process. This means that there will be occasions when you need to spend more time in one part of the process than you were anticipating. But remain disciplined in time. When it’s time to break, break. When it’s time to wrap, wrap. Also, make sure to unfreeze the group when they come back from a break or start a new session. The team needs to proceed through the process as one unit. Once the stage is set, it’s time to move into Step 2: Gather Data.
Step 2: Gather Data
Gathering the data means collecting all the facts and perspectives in the room on the issue at hand. If you don’t take the time to gather all the facts, the group is going to miss the full picture and make a half-baked decision. Each person will see the problem in a different light and no agreement will be reached on what the core issue really is.
Here’s an example to show what happens when you skip gathering data. Imagine a technology company that is experiencing a 10% reduction from the previous quarter’s sales. Alarmed, the board of directors asks the CEO to identify the problem and present a solution at the next board meeting. The CEO gathers the VP of Sales, VP of Marketing, CTO, and CFO in a conference room and says, “All right. We’re down 10% this quarter. The board wants answers. What are your solutions?” This approach to problem solving is a disaster in the making. It’s not the right way to make good decisions at all. Why? Because the leader skipped gathering data as a group and, as a result, each individual in the room will have a divergent perspective and conflicting interests and styles that never get reconciled.
In this scenario, the VP of Sales, who’s a hard-charging, task-focused type (Psiu) will likely point the finger at marketing: “We’re not selling because we’re not driving enough inbound leads. Get me more leads and we’ll sell ‘em!” The VP of Marketing, who’s more of a creative, big-picture type (psIu), will point the finger at technology: “We’re not selling because the product features we’ve been requesting are six months behind schedule!” The CTO, who likes to keep things nice and stable (pSiu) will point the finger back at marketing and sales: “We’re not selling because the business side keeps changing requirements in the middle of our production cycle!” And the CFO, who prefers to keep the drama low (psiU) will respond with, “We’re not selling because there’s too much infighting!” After an hour of fruitless discussion, the CEO throws up his arms in exasperation, makes a rushed set of decisions, and barks out his orders for the team to follow. The executive team all nod their heads in agreement, but inside they’re thinking, “Oh boy, here we go again. Another half-baked plan that’s not going to get us anywhere.”
What should have happened? The group should have first gathered data on multiple aspects of the problem. For example, what is the economic growth rate during that quarter? What are competitive sales figures? What is the client satisfaction rating? What facts do sales, marketing, technology, and finance have that can add clarity to the picture? Stick to data gathering here. Don’t dive into solutions yet, no matter what. When someone tries to go for the solution (and they will) stop them: “We’ll get to solutions in a bit but let’s first make sure that we have a full picture. Let’s keep gathering information.”
What happens if you don’t have the data you need? Go get it. Break the meeting. Assign action steps for people to come back with good, clean data as soon as possible. Set a new meeting to continue with the information the team needs to make a good decision.
There are two reasons that gathering good data from the team is so critical. The first is that good information is like a light in the darkness. Change constantly alters reality – and the faster the change, the harder it is to see and understand what’s happening and adapt to it. What was a good decision last year/month/week/yesterday may no longer be a good decision now. People change, markets adapt, situations alter, and technologies disrupt and get disrupted. Good information makes it possible to manage all this because it allows you to better understand and respond to each of the phases you’re moving through. It reveals what’s really happening now and provides insights into what might happen next.
The second reason to gather data as a group is that each person brings a different perspective to the table. Without a shared “data-base” each person is going to operate as if their perspective were the right one, thus missing key elements of the situation. If, however, the entire team can all agree that “yes, this is the data and we believe it’s correct and comprehensive,” that opens the door to new perspectives and a coherent understanding of the situation. It’s a good shared data set that leads to the next step, Generating Insights.
Step 3: Generate Insights
Now that the team has the data and can agree on the facts, it’s time to leverage the collective wisdom of the group to generate insights. What might be causing these facts to occur? What are the underlying causes and what are the symptoms? It’s important to get all the perspectives on the table before deciding what to do. Stimulate an environment of curious exploration versus blame and finger pointing. In the previous example, one insight might be that there’s poor coordination between development and customer requirements. Another might be that sales are down because the economy tanked. It doesn’t matter at this stage which insights are correct, only that the group is collectively generating insights based on a shared set of facts.
Step 4: Decide What To Do
If the group has gone through a process of setting the stage, gathering the facts, and generating insights, now is the time for the authority in the room to decide what to do. Good decision making is not a democratic process; it’s a participative process. By creating an environment of authentic group participation, the person who is responsible for having the decision implemented must now make it. Because those with power and influence over the implementation have been given the opportunity to have their voice heard, they should stand behind the decision. It does not mean that the decision will make everyone happy, but it does mean that the team now needs to back whatever decision is made. After facilitating over 100 group decision-making processes, I have yet to witness the ultimate authority make a decision that is at odds with the group. It’s not that the authority is afraid to make a hard decision; rather, it’s that everyone involved has reached the right decision together. When this occurs, it’s actually pretty easy and fast to move ahead towards implementation.
Step 5: Assign Action Steps
Now that a basic decision has been made, it’s time to assign action steps and amp up the time pressure on the implementation. In simple terms, the group needs to identify what to do, who is doing it, and by when. You’re setting clear deliverables, clear dates, and unarguable accountability to execute on that decision. In this part of the process, there may be a slight give and take between the authority in the room and those charged with performing different aspects of the implementation. Arthur Authority asks, “Frank, when do you think you can complete the XYZ analysis?” Frank replies, “I need to do a little research and speak with Marge. I’ll have it to you by next Friday.” If this is amenable to Arthur’s needs, the action item gets accepted and written down: “Frank to complete XYZ analysis by next Friday.” If it’s not amenable, then Frank and Arthur need to identify ways to change the task or speed the process. Because they’ve gone through the entire process together, both Frank and Arthur are fully aware of the broader implications, needs, and purpose of the action item. Consequently, there’s usually really easy agreement and clarity on action items. And when in doubt, lean towards more time pressure than less.
Compare this to a scenario when Arthur and Frank don’t go through the decision-making process together. In this scenario, Arthur has to get one-on-one time with Frank, explain the situation, and attempt to get Frank to change his schedule and priorities. It’s not always easy to do – and it generally results in a poorer decision and a bogged-down implementation.
Step 6: Reinforce
Reinforcement is essential to a well-run decision-making process. In this final phase, the group reflects on and integrates the process they just experienced and the decisions reached. It’s not a chance to complain, but rather to verbally lock in and commit to the implementation. A simple way to reinforce and close the meeting is to poll the group on their individual experiences during the process, as well as their views on how to improve it or how to support the implementation. The authority in the room is the last person to speak and then the meeting is closed. The end result is always better decisions and greater buy-in for the implementation. If not, it’s a clear indication that the requisite level of authority, power, and influence weren’t in the room, that there was a breakdown in the process, or that there’s a greater underlying misalignment at the level of vision and values or structure.
Executing on Short-Range Tasks vs. Long-Range Business Development
Just as there is a particular rhythm to follow for effective decision making and implementation, there’s a particular rhythm for managing business needs between short-range execution and long-range business development. From the article on organizational structure, you’ll learn that short-run needs always overpower long-range ones. You therefore need to create an organizational process that allows for effective long-range planning and development combined with short-range execution.
The rhythm goes like this. One to two times per year, a Company Council, represented by the key functional heads and key team members throughout the organization (those 1s and 2s you want to groom for the long term), should gather together off site to set the long-range (one-to-three-year) strategy and to align the organizational structure to support that strategy. The goal of this strategic alignment session is to allow everyone to focus on long-run changes impacting the market and the business and to identify potential improvement areas within the business. It’s important to do this long-range work off site to stimulate a new and broader perspective among the team. Once the long-range strategy is identified, shorter-range goals and outcomes are set, budgets and rewards are established, and the key performance indicators (KPIs) are identified for each business function.
Armed with a common long-range strategy, clearly defined authority and accountability within the structure, and defined short-range goals, the core functional heads form into a Leadership Team, led by the CEO, that meets weekly or biweekly on site to review progress, make decisions, and execute the plan. These short-range tactics support the long-range development plan. This shared alignment and dialogue among the Leadership Team allows everyone to stay on the same page, track and adjust performance, and keep the friction low. It should also reduce the total number of meetings conducted each week because, instead of scheduling ad hoc meetings, decisions are funneled into regular Leadership Team meetings where a good decision-making process is followed.
Watch for Signs of Deeper Problems
As you gather the authority, power, and influence over the implementation into the decision-making process, you will be well served to also recognize the signs of organizational misalignment or inertia. If there’s significant misalignment within the organization’s Execution Diamond (Vision and Values, Structure, and People), then your task will be very challenging indeed. Instead, your best course of action would be to gather in the authority, power, and influence to first realign the Execution Diamond. Once that is aligned, you can then attack the problem or opportunity you want to resolve.
In order to increase organizational momentum, you must make good decisions and implement them swiftly. In order to do that, you have to first gather in the mass of authority, power, and influence over the implementation and reduce the resistance to change. Then a force of change can be applied through an effective decision-making and implementation process and the organization will accelerate quickly in the desired direction. Any time a key decision needs to get made, follow a sound process that begins by setting the stage, followed by gathering the data, generating insights, deciding what to do, assigning action steps, and reinforcing the decision. With the right people in the room, good decision making naturally leads to swift implementation.
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1.The Agile Alliance
2. Ichak Adizes, Managing Corporate Lifecycles, Santa Barbara: Adizes Institue Publishing, 2004.