Tag Archives: decision making

Accuracy of Timespan

“You see,” Pablo continued, “it’s the ‘by when’ that creates the complexity of any problem.”

“I’m listening,” I said.

“The further our intention is into the future, the more uncertainty, the more ambiguity creeps in. In spite of our best intentions, the future is without precision. My friend Murphy* has a law, with which, I am sure you are familiar. From one day to one week, one month, three months, a year, two years, five years, the longer the timespan, the more uncertain those future events. And, yet, in the face of that uncertainty, we have to make a decision today.”

“We were talking about the size of a role,” I tried to bring this discussion back on point.

“Indeed, some roles, production roles focus on today, tomorrow, this week. Supervisory, coordination roles focus on this week, this month, this quarter. Managerial roles focus on this quarter, this year into next year. Executive management roles focus on this year through five years. The CEO role looks out 5 years and beyond. Using timespan, we can accurately measure the size of the role.”

“And, we were talking about the size of a person,” I prompted.

“Most people are capable today, this week, maybe a month into the future. Meaning, they can perceive things around them and are competent at making near term decisions. As the timespan of the decision increases, some struggle. There is a big drop off at one year. Thinking out, and making effective decisions beyond one year into the future, well, far fewer people have capability at that level.”
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*Murphy’s law – anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Attributed to Capt. Edward A. Murphy, US Air Force, 1949.

The Timespan of Dry

“Most people are comfortable with short timespan decisions,” Pablo continued. “Most elements are tangible, known. We can observe, inspect, feel, touch each of the elements. The level of uncertainty, the level of ambiguity is low. And most people are comfortable.”

“I can see that,” I said.

“And, as the level of ambiguity grows, the timespan of the decision gets longer, some people struggle. Some people struggle to the point of paralysis.”

“I have seen that as well,” I replied.

“Look closely,” Pablo lowered his voice. “We can measure the ambiguity, measure the uncertainty of the decision by looking at timespan.”

“How so?” I asked. “How do we calibrate the timespan of a decision?”

“All we have to do is inspect the timespan of intention, it will tell us.”

“Timespan of intention? I am not sure I understand,” I said.

“What is our intention? What is our expectation? What do we want to happen? What is the goal? It is our intention that defines the timespan of the decision. It is our expectation. It is what we want to happen. It is the goal. Very simply, a goal is a ‘what’ by ‘when?’ Built into our intention is timespan.”

“Your example about the cloudy day and the umbrella?” I wanted to see the connection.

“If we want to avoid the possibility of rain today, we might carry an umbrella,” Pablo explained. “If we want to stay dry next week, we might acquire the habit of carrying an umbrella all the time. And, if we want to stay dry next month, while we sleep, we might build a house. And, if we want to stay dry next year, in the face of a hurricane, we better make a decision today to construct a building to withstand a windstorm. And, if we want to stay dry for the next five years in the face of multiple storms that might occur, we better create an enforceable building code rated for Cat 5. The timespan of our decision provides us with a calibrated measurement to indicate the complexity of that decision, in the face of uncertainty, in the face of ambiguity.”

The Measure of Complexity

“Would you agree,” Pablo asked, “there are some simple problems that most people can easily solve?”

I nodded, “yes.”

“And, would agree that as problems become more complex, some people struggle?”

Again, I nodded, “yes.”

“So, how do we measure the complexity of any decision, the complexity of any problem?”

“I suppose,” I started, “it would have to do with the number of variables in the decision, difficult enough for those variables we know about, even more so for those variables we do not know about.”

“And, how would you define a variable, start with one we know about,” Pablo prompted.

“A variable would be something we anticipate, and we don’t know for sure which way it’s going to go,” I replied.

“Like the weather,” Pablo stated. “We anticipate it is going to be cloudy, but we don’t know for sure if it is going to rain.”

“Yes,” I said, not sure where Pablo was taking me.

“And, how do you know it’s cloudy?” he asked.

“I looked outside, no sunshine. Observable, visual evidence, I can see it.”

“But, you don’t know if it is going to rain? Do you take an umbrella?”

“I suppose I might. A minor annoyance if it doesn’t rain, and a handy thing to have if it does,” I assumed it was a smart response.

“So, in the face of uncertainty, you make a decision based on something that is observable right now. Would you make the same decision a half-hour from now?” Pablo baited.

“It looks pretty cloudy, I believe a half-hour from now, I would still take an umbrella,” I hedged my bet.

“So, in a short timespan, you believe you have enough evidence, in spite of the uncertainty, to make a decision to take an umbrella?”

I nodded, “yes.”

“How about a week from now?” Pablo’s eyes shifted and he grinned.

“Well, who knows, a week from now if it will even be cloudy, much less rain?” I asked.

“So, one week from now is less certain than a half hour from now?”

Again, I nodded, “yes.”

“Is it possible to measure the uncertainty of any decision using timespan?” Pablo stopped and rested.

Decisions at Every Level of Work

“You said that if the manager is held accountable for the output of the team, the manager might take better care in selection?” I asked.

Pablo nodded. “It does no good to bring someone on board without the capability for the work, only to later blame that person for underperformance.”

“If that is the case,” I picked up the unspoken question, “then why do managers struggle finding the right fit for the role.”

“They struggle,” Pablo replied, “because they rarely sit down and figure out the work. Most managers see work as a series of task assignments. Do this, do that. No more. Following the task assignment, the manager often asks, ‘So, do you know what to do?'”

“And?”

“You see, it slips by so easily. That question barely begs understanding. The question from the manager should more properly be, ‘In completing this task assignment, what decisions will you have to make? What problems will you have to solve?’ Most managers miss that completely.”

“But, if the team member knows what to do, what decisions are left?”

“See, even you, my most aware friend, have overlooked discretion built into the work. There is always appropriate decision making at every level of work. Take a fork lift driver, and a pallet to be moved from point A to point B,” Pablo laid out.

“I got it.”

“Do you?” Pablo pushed back. “What decisions are to be made by the forklift driver?”

“It’s obvious,” I said. “Am I moving the right pallet to where it needs to be placed?”

“You’re right, that is the obvious question,” Pablo started. “And, let’s look at some other questions, any one of which could create failure.

  • How heavy is the pallet?
  • Is the pallet properly balanced?
  • Is my forklift rated to handle the weight of the load?
  • Will the size of the pallet, plus a safety buffer, clear the designated pathway to location B?
  • Are there unanticipated obstacles that might temporarily be blocking the pathway?
  • Are there any over height restrictions to the movement?
  • Will this move require flag walkers during movement?
  • Is the forklift in operating order?
  • Are all safety signals, warning lights and sounds operating?
  • Am I wearing appropriate PPE during the move?
  • Is the designated point B a permanent location within a specified perimeter? Or a temporary staging area that must be flagged for safety?”

“Okay, okay,” I laughed. “I get it.”

“Most managers rarely sit down and figure it out,” Pablo was adamant. “What’s the work? What decisions have to be made? What problems have to be solved?”

Accountability for Wrong Decisions

“You have talked about managerial systems and organizational structure,” I started. “Those are well-worn labels, but the devil is always in the details.”

Pablo nodded. “Yes, the detail of structure is simply the way we define the working relationships between people. The success of any organizational structure rests on its effectiveness to define two things – in this working relationship, what is the accountability and what is the authority?”

“But, isn’t it second-nature, that especially in a hierarchy, the manager has the authority and the team member is accountable to carry out the decisions of the manager?”

“Not so fast,” Pablo said slowly. “Each has the authority to make decisions within an appropriate span of discretion. And it is the manager accountable for the output of the team member.”

“But, if the team member, within an appropriate span of discretion, makes the wrong decision, how can you hold the manager accountable?” I asked.

“Because the manager selected the team member, trained the team member, assessed the team member and then delegated the decision to the team member. If the team member makes the wrong decision, that outcome is the accountability of the manager.” Pablo stopped to let that sink in.

“When we are clear about accountability, behavior follows,” Pablo continued. “When we accurately define the accountability, people know what to expect and they behave accordingly. If the team member is held to account for a wrong decision or underperformance, there begins a mistrust about whether the manager was clear in their instruction, whether the training was adequate, the right tools available, the circumstance not anticipated. If the manager is held to account for the team member’s wrong decision or underperformance, there begins a supportive relationship to ensure the training was adequate, the working conditions conducive, the selected project appropriate, within the team member’s capability.

“You see,” Pablo said, “the manager cannot allow the team member to fail. In a punitive context, that is why the manager often snatches back the authority for the decision and simply assigns the task. In a trusting context, the manager has to make sure all the variables around the team member are adequate and conducive to success. And, that includes the manager’s selection of that team member in the first place. The success of the organization starts with being clear about managerial accountability.”

The Delegation Paradox

“But, it seems to me, that accountability is already fixed,” I replied. “The manager makes the decisions and the team member carries it out. Isn’t that the pervasive understanding for everyone?”

“You might think that, but you would be mistaken,” Pablo ventured. “For a company to grow, it cannot be so. If the manager makes all the decisions, eventually, what happens to the speed of decision making?”

“Well, it begins to slow down,” I observed.

“Or stops, when the manager becomes overwhelmed with all the decisions. As the organization grows, there are too many decisions to be made by one person.”

“And?” I prompted.

“For the organization to grow, the manager has to delegate,” Pablo flatly stated.

“But, every manager already knows they have to delegate, happens all the time,” I said.

“No, every manager knows they have to delegate, and they think, what they have to delegate are task assignments. In the delegation of a task, the manager also has to delegate appropriate decision making along with the task.”

“But, shouldn’t the manager reserve the authority for the decisions to be made?” I wanted to know.

“Only, if the manager wants to slow things down, or bring things to a crashing halt,” Pablo chuckled. “Appropriate decision making has to be delegated along with the task assignment. Most managers, at the end of a delegation meeting, ask ‘Do you understand what to do?’ A more relevant question would be ‘As you work through this task, what decisions do you have to make?’ Every level of work has appropriate decision making.”

“Well, that should get some things off the manager’s plate,” I said.

“Not exactly,” Pablo had a hint of a smirk on his face. “You see, the manager is still accountable for the output of the team member. If the team member underperforms or fails, it is the manager who is accountable. And that changes everything.”

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?

Growing Pains

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
As the CEO, I am stretched a bit thin. I have 10 direct reports, with the prospect of adding two or three more as we continue to grow. I have 1-1s with each manager for 60-90 minutes twice a month, but it leaves little time to spend as CEO. I feel a bit like I am pulled into the weeds.

Response:
Your company is too big to be little and too little to be big. Your company is in No Man’s Land. You have enough resources (budget) to make the hires necessary to relieve a bit of pressure, but these are critical hires, you don’t want to make a mistake, so you continue stretching. There is only one way out.

You have to build the infrastructure of your executive management team. You cannot work longer hours. You cannot work harder. You can only spread the burden.

This is a dilemma first faced by every entrepreneur startup, where the Founder makes all the decisions and solves all the problems. As the organization matures, what happens when all decision making continues with the Founder? What happens when all problem solving continues with the Founder? The speed of decision-making, the speed of problem solving slows down, sometimes stops.

You managed to get out of startup, but your inclinations continue. Others, I am sure, have told you that you have to let go. No.

You have to delegate. This is not a task assignment. What you have to delegate is decision making and problem solving. The most important thing you can do, as CEO, right now, is to build the infrastructure of your executive management team. If you cannot do this, you will end up with 13-15 direct reports and you will still wonder why you are stretched so thin.

Not Warm and Fuzzy

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I have been reading a couple of books on Servant Leadership. It makes sense, but seems kind of warm and fuzzy. I am not necessarily a warm and fuzzy person.

Response:
So, let’s shift your viewpoint of Servant Leadership from a warm and fuzzy concept to getting some work done. If you read this blog, you know I define work as problem solving and decision making. In your role, as a manager, you have a team to perform some organizational function (marketing, sales, account management, ops, quality control, research & development, HR, accounting). In the work of your team, they have appropriate problem solving and decision making. When things are stable, your team can manage all the routine problem solving and decision making.

And, when things change, and the level of decision making creeps up, sometimes they struggle. And, that is where you come in, as the manager. It is your role to bring value to your team’s group and individual problem solving. You do not do this by telling people what to do, you do this primarily with questions.

So, the concept of Servant Leadership has little to do with warm and fuzzy, everything to do with decision making and problem solving.

The Bloated Organization

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I grew up, as a manager in a small company. I just received an offer, which I accepted at a large company with over a thousand employees. As I look around, and I know this is a corporate structure, I feel a little lost. There are managers of this and that, directors, senior levels, junior levels. I got a copy of the org chart, looks like there are about eleven levels between the clerical team and the CEO. I have only been here for two weeks, but it looks like chaos. Even the meetings I attend seem misdirected. There is a formal agenda that gets blown through quickly, then there is a discussion (argument) that goes until the end of the meeting (always ends on time). Did I make a mistake? Should I have stayed at my old company? (Unfortunately, too late, they already filled my old position.)

Response:
At least they end their meetings on time.

I often get a call from a company like this, complaining of two things. They think they have a communication crisis or a personality conflict between two people. The company wants to know if I can arrive, do some personality profiling and conduct a communication seminar. Your description gives me better clues to what is really going on.

In most cases, I do not believe in communication breakdowns or personality conflicts. I believe there is a structural issue. Structure, organizational structure, is simply the way we define the working relationships between people. On paper, it looks like a chart, in real life, a messy chart.

The most important definition in working relationships is two related concepts, accountability and authority, one goes with the other. To be accountable for an output, I must have the authority to make a decision or solve a problem in the way I would have it solved. If I have the authority to make such a decision, I must also have the accountability that comes with it.

This basis for organizational structure, accountability and authority, also provides guidance for the number of management levels required. Without much more due diligence, my intuition tells me this organization needs no more than five levels, meaning it needs no more than five levels of accountability.

Organizations, like the one you described, get bloated because there is no framework for decision making or problem solving. Supervisors get promoted to manager because someone needed a raise and got a title instead. Or, someone got a raise and needed a title to go with it. Or, an underperforming team member needed more supervision, so they got a special manager to watch over them (instead of a demotion or termination). Organizations get bloated for all kinds of reasons. And, that bloating costs the company in decision friction and problem solving throughput.

But, you are in a situation you are stuck with, at least for now. And you are likely a junior manager with lots of accountability and little authority. Here is your first baby step. Get clear with your manager, in each key area of your role, what is the specific output and how often will that be reviewed. For each accountability, what is the authority you have to make a decision or solve a problem in the way you would have it solved. That will keep you from getting fired in the first 60 days.

Check back with me then and tell me what more you have learned.