Good Decision-Making

Ultimately, our job as leaders boils down to a few things. Having a vision and strategy that is shared, understood, motivating and that inspires action. Creating a great culture. Hiring and supporting great people. And, maybe less obvious, creating an organization that’s good at making decisions.

It turns out that there’s a very high correlation between organizational effectiveness and the quality of organizational decision-making. And the best, most actionable article I’ve found on understanding the quality of an organization’s decision-making says it’s function of:

  • Speed: how fast do you decide?
  • Effort: how much work goes in to making decisions?
  • Quality: how good are the decisions?
  • Yield: how well do you turn decisions into actions?

As someone who’s transitioned from the non-profit to the for-profit sector, my experience is that non-profit organizations typically decide more slowly and with more effort, all without resulting in consistently high(er) quality / higher yield decisions.

I think this is a function of the more multi-faceted accountability in the non-profit world (multiple criteria for success, multiple stakeholders). This in turn leads to slow(er), high(er)-effort decision-making which begets a culture that accepts slower, higher-effort decision-making, even when it’s not always needed.

This is not to say that faster is always better: speed is not useful if we make lots of quick, poor decisions.

Indeed, one of our jobs as leaders is to consistently walk the line of always moving quickly while managing to get the right input from the right people, so that decisions are (mostly) high quality.

The nuance is that how we decide develops into a cultural norm: people watch how decisions get made, learn that behavior by osmosis, and replicate whatever your decision-making culture is.

For example, is it OK in your organization to:

  • Make decisions without formal authority?
  • Change a decision after it’s been made? After the deadline?
  • Leave a decision-making meeting without a decision getting made?
  • Have a more junior person be the decision-making in a meeting with someone more senior?
  • Make a decision that is not documented?
  • Make a decision that doesn’t turn into action?
  • Be unclear who the decision-maker is on a given topic?
  • Have one decision-maker?
  • Have many decision-makers?

While there’s no right answer to any of these questions, my view is that organizational growth creates complexity, and complexity slows things down and allows people to hide.

That’s why most of the time, most organizations would benefit from faster decisions being made by fewer people who take more ownership around being “the decider.”

One helpful way to jumpstart these conversations is by starting to frame decisions as either Type 1 (irreversible, make them very deliberately) or Type 2 (reversible, prioritize speed). You’ll quickly discover that most decisions are Type 2, and that just might give you the freedom to move faster on them.

One final thought: one of the easiest ways to lead, no matter where you sit in an organization, is by choosing, today, to make more decisions without triple-checking if it’s OK. The worst thing that will happen is that you’ll discover that deciding really isn’t allowed (which is important information). The best thing is that more people will start turning to you to decide more things, because you had the courage to step up in the first place.

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