Category Archives: Decision Making

Discretionary Judgment

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You talk about work as making decisions and solving problems. You talk about discretionary judgment. When I tell a team member about their role (in a role description), it seems more like a list of tasks that have to be completed. How do I talk about discretionary judgment in a role description?

Response:
Most role descriptions are as you describe, a disorganized list of tasks and activities. But, when we hire a team member, we are not paying for their tasks and activities, we are paying for their discretionary judgment. If we were just paying for task completion, we would hire robots. And, every role has decisions to make and problems to solve. Every role requires discretionary judgment.

A typical supervisor task is to post a work schedule for the team for the following week. But that is just the outcome. Here is the discretionary judgment part.

This task requires the supervisor to look ahead on a rolling 4-6 week basis, to anticipate changes due to team member vacations or other circumstances that will affect the team member’s attendance. And to look ahead on a rolling 4-6 week basis, to anticipate changes due to production fluctuations which may require a reduction in shift personnel or overtime. The supervisor will use discretionary judgment to create the schedule based on those circumstances.

This Business of Judgement

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

Question:
From Monday’s post A More Accurate Judgement of Capability, the question came – So how does one get into the judgement business?

Response:
Become a manager. Don’t give me politically correct rhetoric that we shouldn’t judge. Management is all about judgement. Work is making decisions and solving problems. Making decisions is all about judgement. Elliott called it discretionary judgement.

The Time Span of Discretion is the length of time (target completion time of a task) that a person has, in which to make judgements that move the task to completion (the goal). We make judgements about –

  • What is the goal?
  • What has to be done now?
  • What has to be done next?
  • Who, on the team, would be the most effective at completing this task or that task?
  • How effective was the team member, completing this task or that task?

Management is about making decisions. For better or worse, good judgement, poor judgement. -Tom Foster

Levels of Work and Appropriate Decision Making

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
In your workshop today, you asked two questions –

  • What have been your growing pains (as an organization)?
  • What has to change going forward?

It occurred to me, the reason our company is stuck, is that decision making always gets pushed to the CEO. In our executive team meeting, whenever there is a decision to be made, even seemingly routine decisions, I see heads go down, deference to the CEO. We all wait, unable to make a move until she speaks.

Response:
Dependency is the collusion required to institutionalize parenting and patriarchy. It’s a two-way street. Given the opportunity for the CEO to play God, it is very difficult to resist. Allowing someone else (the CEO) to make the decision lets the executive management team off the hook of accountability. It is a perfect collusion.

Allowed to persist, the executive management team is crippled from making ANY decision, especially those they should be making. When all decision making streams through the desk of the CEO, speed slows down and accountability is concentrated.

When you understand levels of work, you are suddenly able to determine what decisions are appropriately delegated and who to delegate them to. There is appropriate decision making at every level of work.

When the decision emerges in the executive management team, ask these two questions –

  • What is the appropriate level of work to make this decision?
  • Who, at that level of work, will be accountable for the consequences of that decision?

-Tom

How to Bring Value to Decision Making

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was just promoted to a new role in my company, as an S-III manager. Every working relationship is now different. All these years, I avoided my manager because the only feedback I got was criticism, my task assignments seemed like barked orders. The less we talked, the better we got along, at least from my perspective.

As time went by, my manager moved on and I was tapped to take his place. So, now, I have a new manager. In your workshop, you said it is the role of every manager to bring value to the decision making and problem solving of each team member. While this is certainly advice for me as I work with my new team, I am more curious how I might kickstart things with my new manager. I refuse to stand by the same dysfunction I had with my old manager. How can I get the most out of the working relationship with my new manager?

Response:
First, congratulations on your promotion. I can see from your question why your company selected you. I assume your new manager is in a role at S-IV.

  • Clarify expectations
  • Organize expectations
  • Define the output
  • Schedule a recurring meeting
  • Set the agenda
  • Don’t skip the meeting

Clarify expectations
The central document to clarify expectations is a role description. The tendency is to assume understanding without a written agreement. Write it down.

Organize expectations
In your new role, you will be accountable for a range of outputs. An S-III role is a big role. You will have a long list of tasks and activities. Some of the things you do will go together, but some things will be separate and distinct from the other tasks and activities. All are important, none can be overlooked. Find the things that go together and collect them (in the role description) into a Key Area, a Key Result Area (KRA). Go back to your list and find the next things that go together, separate and distinct from the other tasks and activities. Collect them (in the role description) into another KRA. By the time you finish this exercise, you should have defined approximately 6-8 KRAs.

Define the output
In each KRA, based on the tasks and activities, define the output. What is the accountability in each KRA? Each Key Area must have at least one, no more than three defined outputs.

Schedule a recurring meeting
Schedule a recurring meeting with your manager, two hours, once per month. This meeting is just the two of you, 1-1. This is not a casual meeting, but a formal meeting with a start time and an end time. You set the agenda.

Set the agenda
Your agenda will follow the Key Result Areas (KRAs) you defined. Your role description will give you a general idea of the tasks and activities, as well as the defined output in each KRA. Your agenda will identify the specific actions and short term goals for the next thirty days. In the meeting, as you describe your intentions to your manager, you will make notes and commitments.

Don’t skip the meeting

There will always be something that seems more important at the appointed time of your meeting, but it’s not. The event that gets in the way of your meeting will be more urgent, but never more important.

This is the meeting where your manager will bring value to your decision making and problem solving. -Tom

How to Get a Team Member to Ask for Help (when they need it)

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I have a member of my team that works hard and handles day to day tasks well, but, when his plate gets a little too full, I often don’t find out about it until after an issue happens with a client. I do my best to stay on top of his task list and he knows he can always ask me for help, he just doesn’t. Every client has different times where they are busy and times they are quiet so I need my team to let me know when they need additional resources to hit their deadlines. I think not-asking for help is a mixture of pride and a lack of foresight to see trouble coming. As his manager, how can I help make this situation better (without looking over his shoulder all day, every day)?

Response:
Little problems, allowed to fester, become big problems. And, as the manager, you would have fixed the little problem (when it was easy to fix) if you had only known.

This situation has several parts to it –

  • The team member’s recognition the problem exists.
  • The team member’s understanding where to go for help.
  • The team member’s mindset (belief) about the problem and the channels for help.

Problem Recognition
As the manager, given the same circumstance, you would have recognized the problem or at least the potential for a problem. Your team member may not see what you see, yet, you rely on your team member to spot the trouble. Spend time with your team, in general discussion, on problem identification. You can start with debriefs of completed projects.

  • What did we expect?
  • What went well?
  • What went wrong?
  • How did we find out what went wrong?
  • How can we recognize something-going-wrong next time?
  • When we recognize something-going-wrong, what can we do about it?

Next move to existing projects and ask the same questions.

  • What do we expect in this current project?
  • What do we do well, what are our strengths?
  • What could go wrong?
  • How will we find out something is about to go wrong?
  • How will we recognize something is about to go wrong?
  • When we recognize something about to go wrong, what can we do to prevent it?

Channels for Help
These debrief meetings lead into project status meetings. A project going OKAY doesn’t really tell us much. Create some sort of shorthand or code that describes specific states of projects. You can use project stages, color codes, alphabet codes. You pick. Most importantly, identify the code level when the decision is in the hands of the team member and the code level when the decision needs to surface to the manager.

I am suggesting a formal structure that guides your team to ask for help. As the manager, you are currently trusting the team member to make a decision without context. Create a context that provides specific guidelines about when and how to ask for help. Your team can (and will) help you create this context as part of the project debriefs.

Culture
Culture is a set of beliefs that provide context for behavior. Without context, the team member will create their own context, which can be misguided to the purpose of the project. Most team members do not think about the future implications of problems allowed to fester. Here are some questions to structure what we believe about the future of the problem.

  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a day?
  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a week?
  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a month?
  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a year?

Ask your team to collectively imagine into the future. It is a powerful way for a manager to get in touch with current mindsets and create a context to anticipate and prevent problems in the future. Change the context, behavior follows.

And If the Advice is Wrong?

From Outbound Air

“So, what happened?” Jim wanted to know.

“It doesn’t matter what happened,” Mary said. “What matters is that it was my decision and my decision alone. I was accountable for the decision and the consequences of the decision. The technical crew did their best to keep the aircraft in pristine working order. Flight operations did their best to keep the customers on schedule.

“If I decided to fly the plane and something happened, the technical crew would not be accountable. If I canceled the flight and the repair turned out to be a non-event, flight operations would not be accountable. This decision was my decision.”

“What if the technical advice you get from your team is wrong?” Jim pressed.

“I am still accountable. As the manager, I have to evaluate the risk. If the risk is high, even if I trust my team to do their best, sometimes I have to double-check the data or bring in a second opinion on the analysis. I am still accountable.”

The Manager Lives and Dies by the Decision

From Outbound Air

“I have an issue where I could use your help,” Jim explained to the group. “And I think your understanding will have impact all the way to the top of this organization.

“As a manager, you each have a team,” he continued. “And you defined a manager as that person held accountable for the output of the team. So, if there is a decision to be made, related to the objective for that team, who is accountable for the consequences of that decision? Is it the manager, or the team?”

“Are you kidding me?” Johnny replied. “It’s the manager. If it turns out to be a wrong decision, we don’t fire the whole team, the manager is accountable.”

“Then, whose decision is it to make?” Jim floated the question, the same question that frustrated Kevin DuPont. “Whose decision is it?”

“It’s the manager’s decision,” Johnny responded. “The manager is accountable, the manager lives and dies by the decision.”

“But what if the manager doesn’t have all the facts to make an informed decision,” Jim protested, “and needs the team to participate. Needs the team to gather the facts, analyze the facts. Then, whose decision is it?”

Who Appointed You to Make That Decision?

From Outbound Air

“It’s not their role to make a decision like that?” Javier replied.

“Says who?” Catherine baited.

An awkward twenty seconds ticked by on the clock. “Says me,” Javier finally relented. “That is not a decision that my shift supervisors are capable of making.”

“And, who appointed you to make that decision?” Catherine continued to press.

“You did,” Javier replied without hesitation. “My shift supervisors are perfectly capable of handling the day to day uncertainty of running an airline, but the problem of an unprofitable route likely has nothing to do with operations. It could be a marketing problem, a pricing problem. It could be a new competitor. It could be a spike in fuel costs. It could be the discovery of a new oil field in North Dakota, or government throttling of fracking activity. All of those issues could impact passenger load factors and are beyond the level of work of my shift supervisors.”

Who Makes the Decision?

From Outbound Air

“Exactly,” Catherine beamed. “As long as nothing changes, your teams do not need you. They can handle all the routine decisions and problems. But, you know that something will change, something always changes. This airline operates in a world of uncertainty. You helped define a number of standard operating procedures. Your teams know how to handle weather systems, flight delays and lost baggage. They know how to re-route customers. They even know what to do in the event of a computer outage or a security breach.”

Catherine stopped to let this sink in, before she continued.

“But, what happens when our load factors on a route fall below the level of profitability for a thirty day period. Should they cancel all the flights?”

A wave covered the room. Some stared down at the table, some stared at the ceiling. They did not avoid eye contact, but, instead, looked inside to connect to some logical response. Javier broke the silence. “No,” he was emphatic. “First, that is a decision they do not have the authority to make.”

“And, why not. The routes are unprofitable, why shouldn’t your shift supervisors cancel those flights?” Catherine challenged.

“It’s not their role to make a decision like that?” Javier replied.

“Says who?” Catherine baited.

For Every Management Problem

Al Ripley believed, for every management problem, there was a management consultant. As issues surfaced in meetings, Al looked down his nose, over the top rim of his glasses, and ask the inevitable. “Don’t we know a consultant that can help us with that?”

Those meetings were short and decisive. Ripley emerged from the conference room victorious, confident that he met adversity with a firm commitment to the solution, by hiring a consultant.

Some problems, however, did not go away. But then, Al quickly pointed out, “We must have hired the wrong consultant.”

Excerpt from Outbound Air, Levels of Work in Organizational Structure, by Tom Foster, soon to be released in softcover and for Kindle.

Outbound Air