Category Archives: Decision Making

Getting Consensus?

Adelle emerged from the conference room after two long hours of debate. She shook her head from side to side, a genuine look of despair. “I tried,” she shrugged, “but we didn’t make a whole lot of progress. What we ended up with was mostly crap.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Oh, we have been trying to figure out the best way to solve this problem and there are a bunch of ideas, but we just can’t reach a consensus on which way to proceed. I am afraid to get started until I know for sure that everyone is on board. But every time we make a compromise, other people drop off and want something different.”

“What happens to the quality of the solution every time you compromise?”

“That’s the real problem. It’s the compromising that kills it. After listening to all the input, I know what we should do and the little compromises just water it down. We might as well junk the whole project because, in this state, it will not do what the customer wants it to do.”

“Whose meeting did you just walked out of?” I asked.

It was Adelle’s turn to ask, “What do you mean?”

“I mean, was it the team’s meeting, or was it your meeting? Let me put it a different way. Who is your boss going to hold accountable for this decision?”

“Oh, I tried that once, blaming a decision on the team. I got the message. My boss is going to hold me accountable for the decision.”

“Then, it wasn’t a team meeting. It was YOUR meeting that the team got invited to. It is your responsibility to listen to the input, and it is also your responsibility to make the decision. And you don’t need agreement, you just need support.”

Adelle had to sit down to think about this one.

Negative Stream

Around the water cooler, have you noticed the tone of conversation?

  • “Did you hear about so and so, can you believe what happened?”
  • “You should have seen this guy who cut me off in traffic this morning.”
  • “Can you believe the gall of that person, why are they so opinionated?”

And, most of this is unconscious. It comes streaming out with little thought, guidance or direction. So easy to find fault, condemn or complain.

Ask a person about something good that happened yesterday, and they will stop, suddenly out of flow. Something positive requires conscious thought, does not come streaming out. We can usually find that positive moment from yesterday, but we have to interrupt our unconscious negative stream to do so.

The negative stream and positive thoughts sit in two different parts of the brain. Negative thoughts, from the primal brain arrive from a mental state of survival. Reflexive in speed, we don’t have to think. Positive thoughts require that we trigger the neo-cortex, fully visible on a fMRI brain scan. Responsive in speed, we have to think. Which part of the brain are you thinking with? Which mental state are you using to solve problems and make decisions?

Bring Value to Decision Making

“So, you believe, when your manager left you to solve the problem, simply by asking you questions, that brought value to your thinking. Are you sure your manager wasn’t just being lazy, maybe indecisive herself?” I asked.

“Oh, no. Quite the contrary,” Kim replied.

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely, my manager was clear about decision making. We even had three meetings together just to make a list of all the decisions that needed to be made in our department. Then we grouped the decisions according to who had the authority. Here is the list –

  • Decisions I could make, and didn’t even have to tell my manager.
  • Decisions I could make, but had to tell my manager, after the decision was made.
  • Decisions I could make, but had to tell my manager, before the decision was made.
  • Decisions I had to discuss with my manager, but the decision was still mine to make.
  • Decisions I had to discuss with my manager, but the decision was my manager’s.
  • Decisions my manager would make without discussion.

So, my manager was clear about decision making authority in our working relationship.”

A Different Way to Think (About Projects)

“So, what’s your observation,” I asked. “Moving from a project manager in charge of three projects to a senior project manager in charge of 20 current projects, plus all the projects in the pipeline?”

Andrew looked down, studied the table. “Every single project has a beginning, middle and end. Each project has defined edges to it, resources are specific, and at the end, there is a finished project, very tangible.”

“And?”

“Twenty projects are all in different stages, it’s fluid, the boundaries move. Sure, we create artificial borders and artificial time frames to measure things, compare statistics. But, there is a difference in how you play one, two or three projects and how you play a portfolio of 20. In a portfolio, we may play for a high profile project with slim margins to raise the company’s visibility. We might attempt a new technology, in which we are currently clumsy, to practice, get better. A single project game might fail its gross margin, where a portfolio game might propel the company in a direction without competitors (at least for a while).”

“So, is this just about having more projects in a portfolio?”

“Not at all,” Andrew replied. “Having 20 projects pushed me to think differently, but, thinking differently is more about the timespan of decisions. And we have to do both. My project managers have to be focused on the individual project, and I have to be focused on the future.”

Out of the Chaos

“Managing 20 projects is different than managing three projects,” Andrew repeated. “And, it’s not just that there are more things to do.”

“How so?” I wanted to know.

“When, you have 20 simultaneous projects, you have to look for patterns. In each of the 20 projects, what is the same and what is different? There is no sense solving the same problem 20 times, when you can solve it once.”

“What else?”

“Every project has a start-up phase, mobilization. Every project has a conclusion, substantial completion, punch out and close-out. And, every project has interior milestones. So, there are patterns to find.”

“And?”

“And, if you recognize these patterns, you can build a system, a schematic, a flow chart that gives you a visual understanding how the components go together. In some cases, things become predictable, a natural sequence emerges. Some things can be done simultaneously, some things have to wait until something else is finished.”

“So, that’s the external stuff. What’s going on with you. What’s the inside story?”

Andrew stopped, looked down, then up. “Do I have what it takes. In the middle of the frenzy, will I get caught up in the weeds? Or will I have the fortitude to step back from the chaos and make mental sense of the noise?”

Structure and Creativity – Part II

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

This continues my response to the following question –

Question:
In your model, whose job is it to balance structure and innovation? (or structure that permits innovation?) How is this implemented? Is it a time span issue vs. a creativity/mindset issue? I worry about calcification and lean against structure which prevents innovation.

Response:
It is easy to fear organizational calcification. Much of management literature rails against terminology about command and control, even the subtle reporting relationship reeks iron fists and thumbs of oppression. This is why our understanding of functional organizational structure is so important. And important to you because of your interest, mandate that an organization be creative.

I define work narrowly looking at two things, decision making and problem solving. This discussion is to firmly attach creativity to decision making and problem solving, within the confines of a structure that eschews rigidity.

First, an exercise, in creativity. I ask a group of student within a 60-second period to name (write down) things that are round, as many as possible in 60-seconds. That’s the goal. You would assume those that name 30 are more creative than those that name six. I immediately get a question, “do you mean round and flat like a coin or round like a sphere?” I say, “there are no rules, no restrictions, it’s up to your own definition.” There is no structure to the exercise save the limit of time.

Inevitably, the clock winds down and most participants have a list of six to eight and most have a look of frustration on their face that they performed so dismally. I ask for sample responses –

  • ball
  • coin
  • planet
  • wheel
  • manhole cover
  • marble
  • watchface

Stop, time’s up!

Remember, the goal is to be as creative as possible and name as many as possible. I say, “ball. What about a tennis ball? A baseball? A basketball?”

“Wait, that’s cheating,” the group responds. I smile.

Here is the point. Instead of instructions where there is no structure, let me create a structure that guides you to be more creative.

Name as many coins that are round –

  • penny
  • nickel
  • dime
  • quarter
  • 50-cent piece
  • silver dollar
  • gold dubloon

Name as many planets that are round –

  • Mercury
  • Venus
  • Mars
  • Neptune
  • Uranus
  • Jupiter
  • Earth
  • Saturn

Name as many balls that are round –

  • tennis ball
  • baseball
  • basketball
  • bowling ball
  • golf ball
  • volleyball
  • cricket ball
  • soccer ball

The more structure in the assignment, the more creative, the more possibilities. This is a concept called idea fluency.

I need you to shift your understanding (not change, just shift) about organizational structure where we create working relationships between people where they engage in work using the fullest extent of their capability to make decisions and solve problems.

Elliott’s model helps us understand that there are different levels of decision making and different levels of problem solving. It is incumbent on every manager to understand those levels and engage the fullest capability of their team members in the work at hand.

Placing accountability for team output at the feet of the manager dramatically shifts managerial behavior to create more productive and creative working environments.

It’s Probably Not Important

“How do you know what-you-need to know?” I asked. “You lost the contract, because you understood the problem, had a great solution, but did not know how the decision was to be made. How do you know what-you-need-to-know?”

Jordan thought for a minute. “I guess, the first step is assuming we already know everything we need-to-know. It’s easy to get suckered into thinking that what-we-know matches the reality of the situation. We have to get really clear on what-we-know and what-we-don’t-know.”

“And, what do we assume about what-we-don’t-know?” I pressed.

“We assume what-we-don’t-know is probably not important, that if it was important, we would already know about it, and included it as part of our understanding. That was our first mistake.”

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Hiring Talent – 2020 was released on Mon, Jan 13, 2020. Limited to 20, participants must be part of the hiring process, as either hiring manager, part of the hiring team, human resources or manager-once-removed. Program details are here – Hiring Talent – 2020. If you would like to register please complete the form on the Hiring Talent link. The first 20 respondents will receive a discount code for a $99 credit toward the program.

What You Need to Know

“Unbelievable,” Jordan shook his head. “We thought we had it nailed. We knew what the problem was, had a great solution. We were so confident this project was ours for the taking.”

“And?” I asked.

“What we didn’t know was our competitor had a relationship with their corporate attorney, who whispered in the ear of the CFO, who controlled the budget for the project.”

“So, what did you learn?”

“Sometimes, what we know about the problem and the solution to the problem isn’t what we need to know about how the decision will be made.”

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Hiring Talent – 2020 was released on Mon, Jan 13, 2020. Limited to 20, participants must be part of the hiring process, as either hiring manager, part of the hiring team, human resources or manager-once-removed. Program details are here – Hiring Talent – 2020. If you would like to register please complete the form on the Hiring Talent link. The first 20 respondents will receive a discount code for a $99 credit toward the program.

Do I Have the Authority?

“But, I am the manager, shouldn’t I have the authority to make some decisions around here?” Amber asked.

“Ah, yes. Authority,” I replied. “You must understand, however, that authority comes with accountability. Neither comes first. You cannot have the authority to make a decision without the accountability for the outcome of that decision. Conversely, you cannot be held to account for the outcome unless you have the authority to make the decision.”

“So, just exactly what decisions do I have the authority to make around here?” Amber pressed on.

“To know that, you have to examine your goals and objectives.” Amber had an unspoken question on her face. I continued, “Your goals and objectives, agreed upon by you and your manager, set the context for your accountability (output) and the authority you have to make decisions to reach those goals.

“In the beginning, that authority may be unclear. That is why you meet with your manager more frequently, to clarify the context, define the accountability and determine your authority. As time goes by, your confidence will increase and so will your understanding of the discretion you have to make appropriate decisions.

“The most important understanding, where you have authority to make decisions regarding the output of your team, you also have accountability for that outcome. Do not think you can have the authority without the accountability.”

Any Decision, Any Problem

Think about any decision. You have to think about, not only the consequences of that decision immediately, but also the consequences in a month, three months or a year. An immediate positive consequence may create the circumstance for a negative consequence in three months time.

Same thing goes for a problem to be solved. You have to think about, not only the consequences of that solution in the near term, but the consequences in a month, three months or a year. An immediate solution may create the circumstances for a larger problem in three months time.

Take a high mileage vehicle and extend its preventive maintenance cycle by 30 days. You will save the cost of a maintenance cycle. In three months time, you will not likely notice any difference, but over two years time, you may experience catastrophic vehicle failure. And, it may not just be the cost of the repair, but the delay in the critical path of a project (just to save an oil change).