The best thing about being a manager is that you get to decide. You call the shots. It is thrilling to use that power to get things done. And if you want to get some bigger things done, things outside your assigned areas, you just have to convince a limited number of other managers to go along. Not everyone, only those managers relevant to a more prominent initiative. Thereby a manager is able to come up with decisions decisively, speedily and without spending too much effort on the decision process.
But here is the problem: How does a manager know what is actually “good” for the company and for people? In reality, it is often dangerous to rely on an individual maker:
- Analytical Errors: The Assumptions and Analysis that lead to a decision might be flawed. Too few checks might have been in place that would have prevented this faulty reasoning.
- Insufficient Information: Accurate perception is hard and very time consuming
- Biases: Every Individual is subject to inherent biases. It is just the way the mind works.
- Insufficient Time: With a multitude of obligations, the incentive to take a shortcut is high: “I feel it is right. How can I be wrong? So let’s go for it, now!”
- Reality is complex: There are many situations where the tendency to do good doesn’t help at all, as all options might be grey
Out of this list, the most important killer of good decisions is time. Given enough time, you might get rid of all logical errors, get all information from all the different perspectives, rehearse the decision to remove biases and reduce the complexity of situations. Alas, there is never enough time.
So what can be done to make better decisions? Here is a list.
It starts with Delegation
Delegation is the assignment of responsibility to a subordinate to carry out specific activities. The larger the area delegated is, the more time is freed up for the manager. The opposite of Micro-Managing is Delegation.
Delegation might be the best tool to let people develop and learn. In fact, most management writers think that Delegation is the one best tool a manager has. Manager-tools.com names it one of the three foundational skills that a manager must have, besides running one on one meetings and giving feedback.
Job descriptions are nothing more than a tool for a permanent delegation. But what is most commonly defined as Delegation is the case by case, temporary assignment of responsibility for some minor purposes, which might include some minor decision- making authority.
Delegation is a skill. It requires the mastery of giving briefings, setting targets, remaining hands-off during the execution, giving feedback, etc. There are lots of ways to get it wrong.
The more Delegation is practiced, the more a company…
- moves from Command & Control towards Mission Command
- moves from Hierarchy to Self-Management
- is able to relief Managers from noncritical tasks towards high value-added tasks
Let’s have a look at different options managers have to come up with decisions.
More on this graphic see: 4 Steps to move Companies towards Life.
Beyond Traditional Delegation
There are three main ways to move beyond traditional delegation:
- Collaborative Leadership practices, which still rely on a manager as a central decision maker
- An Appointed Decision maker to whom a significant and specific decision making power is delegated by a manager
- Voting techniques for decision making by groups
1. Collaborative Leadership Practices
With delegation, some, mostly minor choices are offloaded to subordinates. Significant choices do still need to be made by a manager. Here is a way to make those decisions as a manager, but involve everyone affected in a systematic process.
In his 2013 book “Flat Army” Dan Pontrefact comes up with a framework for collaborative leadership. One aspect of his work, the “Collaborative Leadership Action Model,” describes how a leader can get others to get more engaged in the decisions and actions that she makes.
What this 6 step model is highlighting is the need to involve the impacted people in all stages, before and after the decision has been made – and to be truthful and forthright in the following up. I think it is a great way to get started on the way to become a collaborative leader and use the wisdom of the crowd.
2. Appointed Decision Makers
Taking delegation one step further, beyond execution, is the technique to appoint a decision maker on a case by case basis. This is a pretty radical step, as a manager needs to move beyond today’s prevailing mental model – the all-knowing manager – who knows best.
To appoint a decision maker is to make oneself step aside, to be on the sidelines, like a coach in a sports game. To not intervene in the decision process, and to accept the decision made by a subordinate is tough. After all, making decisions is at the very core of the self-understanding of most managers today.
Niels Pfläging in his short book “Organize for Complexity” provides a four-step process how to do this:
This gets tougher the more significant the decision is. If it’s just, for example, the selection of office furniture, it might be easy. But picture delegating the decision for the procurement of a million dollar system. Any Manager delegating crucial decisions to sub-ordinates makes herself vulnerable to attacks. The Manager can be seen as weak, soft and not doing his job.
Appointing Decision makers on a large scale cannot be made in an organization which culture is stuck deep in the hierarchical way of working. Where micro-managing is the norm delegation is usually frowned upon. A company must have embraced the “Mission Command” management style before subordinates can be appointed as decision makers for decisions that maker. Otherwise, the immune system of an organization will attack the “over-delegating, passive” Manager.
3. Simple and Advanced Voting Techniques
Voting! Pah. This is public sector stuff. It is not something we do in business. A manager decides, and execution starts. It is as simple as that.
But wait a minute: Decisions by voting are not as strange as you might think. It is the method of choice to run the board of directors or supervisory boards, where decisions are made by voting in compliance with the statues of a company. Or think of typical steering committees, where different managers of different parts of the organization have to come up with joint decisions through consensus, the most demanding form of voting.
In fact, voting is involved in a lot of what business does. It is just not always explicit. Take for example a manager proposing a particular action and then discussing it with co-workers. By doing so, the manager is taking a measure of the constituency. People are voting by giving their opinions. This can be pictured as an informal way of voting, albeit with a non-binding result. Of course, there are hard-nosed managers out there, who make decisions on their own. But there are those Managers who know that lonely decisions are more likely to fail in execution, too.
Why not making more decisions through explicit voting? In a team setting, this is already happening in today’s companies as agile practices such as SCRUM are adopted. Within SCRUM, there are autonomous teams who decide by consensus within the rules given by method. And there is a referee, called Scrum Master, who mediates conflicts.
In an organizational setting, voting needs the same: Rules and a Referee. There are two options:
A. Voting controlled by a Superior
For small decisions, managers aiming to increase employee engagement can put up some issues to vote, e.g.
- Letting people vote on possible projects through internal crowdfunding
- Evaluating the performance of co-workers through Merit Money
- or by allowing more and more votes on a case by case basis. First on small topics, like the purchase of office furniture and later on more crucial issues
Voting can be done by simple or qualified majority, by consensus, in secrecy or by open vote. Whatever the voting mechanism, it is essential that the manager clearly explains the rules and adopts the role of an impartial referee.
B. Voting by systematic integration of objections
Voting is has a basic shortcoming: It fails to engage people. It does not force people to come out and state true preferences. Instead, some people will estimate what their superior wants and vote accordingly, especially in open votes. To really engage people a way must be found to make everyone come out of his shell and state her or his opinion.
One of the most elegant ways to vote on a team level is supplied by Holacracy (see Holacracy, Liberation and Management 3.0). In the “integrative decision-making process,” a proposal is presented, clarified, discussed and amended in 6 stages until all objections to it have been taken care of and the proposal is adopted.
Basically, this is a consensus vote that addresses the main shortcoming of consensus votes, namely that nothing is ever decided. It does that in ingenious ways:
- It provides a clear script that specifies how and when to engage in the discussion
- It involves everyone, giving introvert and shy people a place and time to speak out in a protected environment
- A facilitator is specified at the start of the meeting and keeps the meeting on track
- Social pressure is applied on every objector to remain reasonable, as each objection is discussed step by step in front of all other meeting participants. Thereby proposals are not drowned in an unidentifiable mass of resentment, but the irritation, the objections, are identified and discussed on the smallest, most concrete base
In a company context, this process can be tuned to achieve even more decisiveness. The consensus requirement might be lifted and replaced by a majority vote. As with all Agile concepts, tinkering is possible to suit the process to the situation at hand.
Accelerants: Values and Constitutions
Adopting any mode of making more participative decisions is easier if companies embrace values, that promote employee participation. Like Netflix, which even publishes its continuously updated values and value stories for anyone in the world to see in the Netflix Culture Book.
Practicing values means making those values the basis for the hard decisions about salary increases, promotion, and firing. Not just for some inconsequential HR exercise.
But values only allow a company to get so far to self-management: Any list of values is far too vague to give sufficient direction to most real decisions. A manager is left with a lot of leeway to interpret and apply values in daily business.
Self-managed, networks teams cannot be run on this arbitrary level. The solution is to adopt a corporate constitution. Such a document codifies how authority is distributed, in processes and committees. It is based on values, but it is far more concrete than that. It is a document detailing the distribution of power, with checks and balances.
An example of a corporate constitution is given by Holacracy.
Conclusion: Actions speaks louder than words
It amazes me how much is written about leadership, corporate values and corporate culture in contrast to the tiny volume that is written about the hard facts like decision-making processes.
Tae Hae Nahm, Managing Director of Storm Ventures, in an interview with the New York Times:
“No matter what people say about culture, it’s all tied to who gets promoted, who gets raises and who gets fired. You can have your stated culture, but the real culture is defined by compensation, promotions and terminations.
Basically, people seeing who succeeds and fails in the company defines culture. The people who succeed become role models for what’s valued in the organization, and that defines culture.”
Talk and action need to be the same. Therefore, I think Management and Leadership are really one. To talk about leadership without addressing the hard facts that management stands for is all but empty talk. Time to get real and try some new decision methods to come up with better, more timely decisions -while at the same time getting people engaged and companies innovative.
Sounds like a total win for me!
That’s what I think. What do you think?
- Pflaeging, Nils; “Organize for complexity. How to get Life back into Work to Build the High-Performance Organization“, 2014
- Roberston, Brian J. “Holacracy. The New Management System for a rapidly changing world“, 2015.
- New York Times Adam Bryants summary of 525 CEO interviews. Entertaining read!