Category Archives: Decision Making

Accountability and Authority

I made sly reference to these two concepts last week. Accountability and authority. These are inseparable.

To be accountable for an output, one must have the authority to determine the variables around that output. Do not hamstring a team member by handing them accountability without the authority to control variables. Bifurcating the two leads to well articulated excuses and blaming behavior.

Simultaneously, do not give someone the authority to control variables without the concomitant accountability. Government oversight committees are famous for wanting to have all the authority without accountability.

These two concepts go hand in glove, not either-or, but AND-and.

It’s Not Communication

“I don’t think you have a communication problem,” I said.

Sarah was quiet.  “But, it looks like a communication problem.  The sales manager is having trouble communicating with the operations manager.”

“I don’t think you have a communication problem,” I repeated.  “I think you have an accountability and authority problem.”

“What do you mean?” Sarah asked.

“Is the sales manager the manager of the operations manager?”

“No,” Sarah replied.

“Is the operations manager the manager of the sales manager?”

“No,” she repeated.

“So, when they are required to coordinate together, who is accountable for what, and who has the authority to make what decisions?”

“What do you mean?” Sarah, always with the same question.

“If the operations manager has a backlog of eighteen weeks, does he have the authority to tell sales to stop selling?”

“Of course not,” Sarah looked a bit shocked.  “That decision is the sales manager’s decision.”

“So, if the output of sales outstrips the output capacity of operations, who decides to stop?” I asked, politely. 

“What do you mean?”  Sarah asked, once again.

“You see, I don’t think you have a communication issue.  I think you have an accountability and authority issue.”

Focused

“You are right,” Byron continued. “The things that hurt us now, are decisions we made a couple of years ago when times were good. It seemed like a good idea at the time. We didn’t think very hard about some of our bone-headed moves.”

“And, now?” I asked.

“And, now we have to get lean. Maybe really lean. It may get worse. We have to be able to take a couple more punches and still be able to maneuver, be able to take advantage of opportunities, but it’s difficult.”

“What is so difficult about it?”

“Well, now, everything has to be focused on a result. If it doesn’t produce a result, it has to go. It’s not pleasant. In many cases, we have to learn to say NO! In the past, we tried to figure out what TO do. Now we have to make decisions on what NOT to do.”

Best of Times

“I’m not sure what happened,” Byron explained. “Our company was voted the number one employer two years ago. We have the best employee benefits, we have the best equipment, we have roomy workspaces, our sales people get trip incentives. All of a sudden, to stay profitable, we have to lay some people off. The mood around here turned south very quickly.”

“Times have been good?” I asked.

“Up ’till now.”

“What happened?”

“Sales have been off. Suddenly all these great things about our company are costing us out of business.”

“When were the decisions made that put you upside-down on your cost structure?”

Byron had to think back. “Three or four years ago, I guess. Those were the best of times.”

“It’s in the Best of Times that we make our biggest mistakes.  A little success can create a whole lot of overhead.”**


**Red Scott’s Cardinals

Democratic Decision Making

“Alright, let’s take a vote,” Ralph directed. I was sitting in the back of the room. I watched the hands go up in favor of Ralph’s plan. There was no dissent. Meeting adjourned.

Ralph was proud, no opposition, he picked up his stuff and strutted out of the room. And that’s when the truth came out. It started as a whisper, a snide remark, and then the piling on began. As it turned out, no one was in favor of Ralph’s plan.

“What do you mean?” Ralph said as I settled into his office.

“I don’t think your plan has a chance for success,” I replied. “As you left the room, I got to thinking, wondering if your plan had covered all the bases, in fact, if it was even the right decision.”

“But, everyone voted,” Ralph protested.

I nodded. “Do you think voting is the best way to make a decision?”

“Hey, it’s how we elect a president?”

I smiled and repeated, “Do you think voting is the best way to make a decision?”

“Well, do you have a better way?” Ralph challenged.

“I was just looking at your four alternatives. You know, there were two things that were absolute deal killers and the one you picked doesn’t meet the criteria.”

“What do you mean?”

“Think about it this way, Ralph. Put up a big chart on the wall and make a quick list of all the things that absolutely, positively have to be a part of the solution. Deal killers. Then make a list of all the things that are not absolute, but would be really nice to have. Now you have two lists, absolutes and desirables.

“Take your four alternatives and put them up against the criteria and see how things shake out.”

Ralph didn’t say a word. His eyes got wide. I could see him mentally checking his quick list. “I think I need to bring the team back in the room. I think they voted for a mistake.”

What’s Wrong With My Org Chart?

“What’s wrong with my org chart?” Ron wanted to know.

“You tell me,” I said.  “An org chart is just a piece of paper with a picture of the way you think.”

“What do you mean?”

“Organizational structure is simply the way we define the working relationships between people.  Org structure is a mental construct, your mental picture of the way people ought to get on together at work.  You drew the picture.  What did you have in mind?  You tell me where the friction is?”

“Okay,” Ron started.  “Just this morning, the sales manager called a meeting with the marketing manager to talk about their expenses to date related to the budget each submitted at the end of last year.”

“And?”

“And, the marketing manager said it wasn’t the sales manager’s business to see how marketing dollars are spent.  She tactfully refused to attend the meeting.  She said the sales manager was NOT her manager and declined to go.”

“What was your response?” I asked.

“I had to admit, the marketing manager has a point.  The sales manager is not her manager.  When she took the position, we were very clear that it was her department.  She has very clear objectives and unless she is off track, we expect her to run things without interference.  But, still, declining to go to the meeting seemed a little insensitive.”

“So, when you think about their working relationship, how do you see it?  Clearly, neither is each other’s manager.” I said.

“Well, they seem to get along fine, at least until this meeting thing,” Ron shook his head.

“Let me be more specific in my question,” I replied.  “How do you see these two questions? –

  • In their working relationship, what is the accountability for each of them?
  • In their working relationship, what is their authority?

“Well, when you put it that way, marketing should coordinate with sales, and sales should coordinate with marketing.  We have significant trades shows we attend that eat up a lot of marketing budget.  Our trade show booth is generally staffed with people from the sales department.  So, the two departments need to coordinate together.  The company has a high vested interest in their coordination.”

“And, in their working relationship, what is their authority to make what decisions?”

“Each department has a department budget, submitted each year and approved by their manager?”

“Same manager, between the two of them?”

“Yes, our VP of business development is the manager of both,” Ron clarified.

“How clearly have you spelled out their accountability and authority in the work they do together?  You just explained it to me, how well have you explained it to them?”

“But, they are supposed to work together, shouldn’t they be able to figure it out?” Ron asked.

“Apparently not.  You think you understand their working relationship, in fact, on your org chart, you drew a dotted line.  So, the situation looks like insensitivity, when the friction is because you failed to define the accountability and the authority in that dotted line.  You put the dotted line there for a reason, but failed to define it.”

The Bigger Context

“But, what if my team has some bone-headed ideas?” Francis pushed back. “There are a couple of people on my team that think I’m an idiot, that they have a better way to do something.”

“Occasionally, we are all idiots,” I replied. “Perhaps, on occasion your team is accurate.”

“But they don’t see the big picture,” Francis described. “They think I delay part of a project because I don’t know what I am doing, when the fact is, we are waiting on parts with a six week lead time.”

“So, it’s context?” I asked. “And, you don’t think they will understand a six week delay in parts?”

“They have trouble just figuring out what materials we need for today’s production, much less a part that won’t be here for six weeks.”

“Francis, this is a struggle for all managers. Your team is working day-to-day or at best, week-to-week, but they are impacted by events that happen month-to-month, or quarter-to-quarter. Don’t sell your team short. They may not be able to manage long lead time issues, but they can certainly understand those issues, particularly if you make them visible. In what way could you communicate project scheduling to your team in a way they would understand?”

Not a Communication Problem

“I think I have a communication problem with my team,” Jordan explained. “It seems like I have to constantly explain, interpret, assign and reassign, clarify, all to come back and do it over again. I think my team needs a communication seminar.”

“And, what would you hope the outcome of this seminar to be?” I asked.

“That the team understands,” Jordan simply put.

“And, what if I told you I don’t think you have a communication problem?”

“What do you mean? It sounds like a communication problem to me.”

“My telephone rings for two reasons,” I replied. “Most people call to tell me they are in the midst of a communication crisis, or have an unresolvable personality conflict on their team.”

“Like me, a communication problem.”

“In my experience, in the throes of explaining and clarifying, you fail to establish two things. I don’t think you have a communication problem, I think you have an accountability and authority issue. You failed to establish, in the task, in the working relationship, what is the accountability, meaning, what is the output? The second thing missing, in the pursuit of that output, who has the authority to make decisions and solve problems?”

“So, I need my warehouse crew to move material, according to a list, from the warehouse to a staging area for a project. I explain what needs to be done, give them the checklist and then they get stuck.”

“Stuck on what?” I asked.

“The material to move is blocked by other material, the forklift aisle isn’t wide enough for the material, or the forklift is down for maintenance,” Jordan shook his head, “so I have to come back and solve those problems before the team can do their work.”

“Not a communication problem. It’s an accountability and authority problem. What is the accountability (output)? And who has the authority to shift materials, find an alternate forklift aisle or fix the forklift?”

Cognitive Power

“Here’s a question for you,” Sam smiled. “We talk about potential, that is something we want in every candidate. You have also asked me to be specific in my language. You chided me about using analogies like – potential for growth, higher level thinking, more bandwidth, mental horsepower. Just exactly what are we talking about? And, why is this so important?”

My turn to smile. “Let me introduce a term – cognitive power. Cognitive power relates to the maximum number of variables a person can simultaneously deal with, in a given period of time. A manual task generally has a limited number of variables. Moving a pallet of ceramic tile in a warehouse requires a forklift, knowing which pallet, where is it located, where does it go, what’s in the way? There are a limited number of variables. And, those variables are physical and fixed.”

Sam nodded, so I continued. “Constructing a building is more complex. There are site considerations, zoning, platting, ingress, physical constraints, functional use, building codes, material availability, coordination of trades, availability of labor, influence of unions, finance logistics, even the weather. And some of the complexity arrives, not from the variables we know about, but, based on the timespan of the project (objective, goal), there will be variables we do not know about. The longer the project, the more uncertain the variables. Yet, to be effective, all the variables must be accounted for, including the ones we do not know about.”

“And so, a more complicated project will require more cognitive power,” Sam chimed in.

“We might try to count the number of variables to understand the complexity in a project, but the longer the project, the more some of those variable are unknowable. A better metric of complexity is to simply calculate the timespan of the project. We have to account for that uncertainty, ambiguity, in the decisions we have to make today.”

Current and Future Potential

“I want to hire someone who has potential,” Sam described. “But, I need them to hit the ground running today.”

“What do you mean when you say, potential?” I asked.

“You know, they have the ability to grow, so as things get more complicated, they don’t get lost,” Sam replied.

“I need you to be more specific. You used the word, grow. Do you mean grow taller, measured in inches? You used the word, lost. Do you mean lost in the woods? If you really want to find someone with potential, your language will lead you to the qualities you look for in a candidate.”

“Yes, but you know what I mean,” Sam flatly stated.

“I can make assumptions, but they might be wrong.” I stopped, then started again. “Instead of looking at the person, let’s look at the work, specifically the context of the work. What does hit the ground running mean? Please use terms related to capability, decision making and problem solving.”

“Okay,” Sam was slow to piece things together. “The role, today, has certain problems to be solved and decisions to be made.”

“Stop,” I interrupted. “So, the candidate has to possess the actual capability to solve problems and make decisions without significant input or direction from you, today.”

“Yes, but, the candidate will still need some initial direction from me, just to find out how things work around here. We have certain processes unique to our company, so the person will need some orientation, initial training.”

“And, how long will you give them to learn this stuff in the beginning?”

“Easy,” Sam said. “Training last two weeks. If they haven’t demonstrated some initial capability by then, we might counsel them out during a probation period.”

“So, you cannot see the performance on day one, but you expect to see performance after two weeks, benefit of the doubt, four weeks or eight weeks? In that period of time, has their potential changed?” I pressed.

“No, potential doesn’t change that fast,” Sam responded.

“So, on day one, you see their actual capability, in a raw state, it is what it is. You need this person to learn and learn quickly, so that two weeks, four weeks, eight weeks from now, the candidate’s decision making and problem solving will be at a higher level, meaning they have current potential. The difference between actual capability today and current potential two weeks from now is initial orientation and training.”

“Yes, but I want more than that,” Sam said, almost complaining.

“Of course you do,” I furrowed my brow. “What you really want is future potential. Potential is not something that can be trained, it can only mature. And, you want to see that in a candidate?”

“It sounds like a tall order, but yes, that is what I want.”

“Then, what questions will you ask?”