Monthly Archives: July 2011
Decision making is too slow in most organisations.
The problem is fuelled by a desire to gather 100% of the detail before taking the plunge when 80 or 90 per cent would be sufficient, and/or by setting the decision criteria higher than is actually demanded by the situation or the stakeholders.
Aiming for your own idea of 100% or holding out for 100% of available information might not be such a great idea. In fact, holding out is what’s holding back company performance.
When it comes to buying, we all want our full pound of flesh. After all, if we’re buying a pair of jeans we want the full 100%, rather than 90% with the crotch missing. We’d feel cheated with anything less.
And when it comes to selling, we all want to push back the boundaries and delight our customers more and more. We keeping chasing 100% satisfaction, and we aren’t satisfied with anything less. That’s great.
And when it comes to sprinting, it’s no use stopping at 90 metres in the 100 metre race. That would be considered ‘shirking’ and falling short.
But the rules are a little different with decision-making, and to discover what they are the clues can be found in Jeans & Sprints.
1. The Finishing Line
Firstly, buying jeans is straight-forward unless, like me, you hate shopping. But in essence, you know what you’re getting and you know what you’re looking for. Ideally that consists of two legs, some pockets, and a waist band and, of course, the crotch. That’s the 100%. That’s what you need in order to do the job that a pair of jeans is designed to do.
And running the 100 metre sprint, whilst not something we’d all want to do, at least has a clear end point. You know when you’ve reached the finishing line. You don’t stop at 90 or 120 metres, you stop at 100.
The difficulty with decision making is that it is often an act of creation, so the ‘end point’ or finished article isn’t always clearly defined. The definition is added by us.
The result is that we often end up searching for that elusive extra 2o% of data when we already have enough to make the decision.
And to complicate matters even more, our idea of 100% is different to someone else’s. The jeans described above might not be regarded as 100% by someone who is looking for embroidered pockets and flares. For them, the standard pair of jeans is only 80% there. But for most buyers, embroidered pockets would be seen as extra trimmings that aren’t worth holding out for.
So, personal choice plays a huge part in decision-making, defining what we are happy to accept.
Yet within business, most decisions are not purely for us. Typically, they are to satisfy the needs of multiple stakeholders, of whom we may be just one, and they might not want the embroidery!
Therefore, clarifying and agreeing with stakeholders what 100% looks like is important because your idea of what constitutes 100% might be 20% higher than what’s actually needed.
2. It’s Got to be Perfect
Secondly, the way decisions are made within organisations often creates frustration, and ties up people in endless knots, meetings, investigations and analysis. It’s not a productive way to do things.
Our quest for certainty, accuracy and perfection, whilst possibly laudable, is perhaps futile and misplaced in a world where decision making needs to be dynamic and all the information isn’t immediately available.
Where will it stop? Searching for that extra 10 or 20 per cent? Will we even know when we’ve got it?
This isn’t about throwing caution to the wind. I’m not talking about dare-devil decision-making, where decisions are made on the basis of 40 or 50 per cent information or confidence. But it means redefining what 100% is; trusting that we have enough to make a well-judged decision; and learning to be comfortable with a little bit of uncertainty. It means buying that standard pair of jeans without delay because they fit the bill. If necessary, we can add the embroidery later.
If we are to get better at decision making we need to get better at knowing when we’ve got enough. Then we can get the organisational gears moving more fluidly.
- Getting to the decision quicker = getting to the market quicker
- Getting to the market quicker = getting to profit quicker
- Less time spent on making decisions = more time spent of reaping the rewards
Knowing where to start is always the problem, but fortunately, in this instance we don’t have to look far for the answer. Just holding up a mirror will do, because the answer lies in one of two places.
It’s You or it’s your Organisation Culture. (Or it’s both).
You might not feel able to change both, but you can have a pretty good stab at changing one.
Let’s start with You…and me.
Why Are We Like this?
Here are just thee personal profiling tools that help to explain this.
- Transactional Analysis and its focus on Motivating Drivers, suggests that some of us have a profound drive to ‘Be Perfect’ and nothing less than perfection will do. This driver has a powerful influence on the way people live their lives and on their understanding of what ‘enough’ looks like.
- Belbin’s Team Roles, particularly the Completer Finisher and the Monitor Evaluator, have a strong preference for making sure that every ‘i’ is dotted and every ‘t’ is crossed.
- The Myers Briggs Type Indicator identifies temperaments that inform the way we make decisions, the level of spontaneity we are happy with, and the type of information we value when making decisions
In addition, we all have our own Personal standards and values which play a big part in our desire to proceed only on the basis of all the facts. And then there’s our attitude to risk which has a huge influence on decision making.
So we have to accept that we all have very strong temperaments that in most situations serve us well and allow us to play a positive role within teams and organisations and society.
The challenge for those of us who have a strong predilection for cautious, intensely-considered decision-making is that this is often at odds with what the situation demands.
It’s not dynamic, it simply isn’t quick enough, and the hunt for a further 10% or 20% of information probably has no additional bearing on the validity of the decision we finally take (assuming we ever get that far!).
In most cases the additional information we uncover only serves to increase our confidence about making the decision, not the fundamental decision itself.
What Can We Do?
It helps to know why we are fending off making the final decision. It’s usually a confidence thing, driven by fear of one kind or another:
- Fear of letting someone down
- Fear of letting yourself down
- Fear of being ridiculed and punished
- Fear of reducing your chances of progression
- Fear of making the wrong decision, with disastrous consequences.
So we need to challenge ourselves to understand what is really holding us back: is it a lack of belief in the decision itself, or are we allowing unrelated concerns to muddy our judgement?
When you next find yourself saying, “I just need a little more information”, here are some questions that could stimulate a new way of thinking about yourself and the situation.
You don’t have to ask them all, and it doesn’t really matter what order to take them in. The important thing is to ask yourself at least one of them, to gain extra clarity about the decision.
- Why do I need to make a decision?
- Why do i need more information?
- Why am I not happy to make the decision on the basis of what i know now?
- What would I need to discover that would lead me to change my mind?
- If I make the decision now, how soon before I know if it was the right one?
- What are the consequences of delay?
- What is very unlikely to happen as a result of this decision?
- What is likely to happen if i decide today?
- What is the very worst that could happen if I decide today?
- What benefits will arise from deciding now, despite only having 80% data and feeling a little uncertain?
Keep Checking. You might already have enough!
Putting the Brakes on Unhelpful Thinking
This is fine… when things are going ok.
But when the road ahead gets bumpier, it might no longer be appropriate to give so much ear space to your Drivers. Sometimes, you just want that annoying back-seat driver to shut up when you have to cope with a difficult manoeuvre.
In Transactional Analysis, this is called giving yourself ‘permissions’. I prefer to call it ‘putting the brakes on’. It’s the things you tell yourself in stressful situations which allow you to alter your behaviour temporarily without feeling bad about yourself.
So if you have a strong ‘Be Perfect’ driver (where it is important for you to get everything right and perfect and complete in order for you to feel good about yourself), what would you need to tell yourself that would give you the permission to put the brakes on?
Try these three things to start with.
- Firstly, you need to tell yourself that in some situations “it might not meet my personal standards but it’s what the stakeholders want”. It fits the needs of the situation or the client or the company and that means that it is good enough.
- Secondly, you need to remind yourself that ‘perfection’ is aspirational, never to be fully realised. Whilst the quest is commendable, sometimes it is a drain on your fuel reserves which could be better deployed elsewhere. So choose your target carefully and don’t squander your talents on things that matter less.
- And when you have told yourself these things, put your foot on the clutch, change gear, and accelerate towards the decision. Concentrate on implementing it and tell yourself that you have the skill and capability to make any necessary diversions as the resulting situation demands.
The Organisation – a Living Thing
“OK”, I hear you say, “I can try all these things myself, but what about the Organisation Culture?”
Organisation sounds a lot like ‘organism’ which tells us a lot about the way it works. It’s a living system capable of response to stimuli, made up of closely associated and interacting particles and elements. Those elements include YOU!
The risk is that we talk about organisations as something disassociated from ourselves. It’s easy then to deflect responsibility away from ourselves. We can fool ourselves into thinking that the reason we have these problems is because “the organisation did this or that, or didn’t do the other”.
But if we talk about the organisation as something that is part of us, it’s less easy to shuffle off responsibility.
Organisations do change if people within them, who are part of them, want to. It often takes strong and visionary leadership, but it can also happen at the grassroots.
So when we say, “The reason why we are so slow to make decisions here is because the organisation doesn’t give us the liberty to make them quicker”, who are we really talking about?
We are talking about ourselves, and the way we manage our relationships and interactions with the various parts of the living organism.
Now, this all sounds well and good, doesn’t it? You might agree with the hypothesis or not. Either way, it doesn’t get us very far unless we know what we can do about it.
Stimulating the Organism
Here are some behaviours organisations need to model, encourage and support.
- Ask for Permission. If you are unsure about whether you are the person who should be making the decision, ask thequestion.Officially secure the authority to decide so that you can proceed with confidence.
- Be Focused. Only look for information that is directly relevant to the decision you need to take.
- Clarify the Remit. When you are required to make a decision, understand who the key stakeholders are and make sure you know what they require from the decision. You can only do this by talking to them.
- Listen to Your Gut. Facts and statistics will only get you so far and the hunt for statistical accuracy might take too long, anyway. And, as we all know, statistics can be bent to prove almost anything. Organisations typically love data, especially the financial stuff, but it’s often misleading. For instance, I saw an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review that convincingly questioned the correlation between sexual intercourse and pregnancy. Instinctively we know there is a direct correlation, but it is still statistically possible to prove otherwise. Our gut instinct can be remarkably accurate so it’s worth listening to.
- Stick Your Neck Out. Let people know why you need to act now, even though you might personally feel uneasy about doing so.
- Be prepared to assume accountability.Challenge ‘Blame’ and replace with Responsibility. Monitor, review and evaluate the decision as it unfolds and be prepared to intervene swiftly if it goes off course. Signal upfront that this is what you intend to do. Take responsibility for fixing things and make sure you learn from the experience. Don’t allow the Learning process to be a Blame process. The focus should always be on “what worked or what went wrong (and how did we fix it?”), rather than on “who cocked up?”
Speed is of the essence, but that doesn’t mean that we have to take ridiculous risks.
In most cases, we have enough data to make a decision but we hold out for a little bit more, searching for that elusive ‘100% certainty guarantee’.
This causes terrible delay, and in many cases, kills off the decision entirely.
So when you are still dithering about whether to make the decision, remember the law of diminishing returns.
- The final 20% of data takes longer to find than the first 80%
- The first 80% is usually the most significant
- The decision is unlikely to change as a result of the final 20%
And if we allow our personal drive for perfection to create demands that are at odds with the needs of the situation or stakeholders, the process inevitably becomes slower than it needs to be, and only makes for customers who are dissatisfied.
In order to stimulate a new decision making regime within our living organism, we all need to seriously question the wisdom of holding out for more, and ask ourselves…
“Do we really need the embroidery?”