FOUR

Make Decisions at the Right Level

A few days after suggesting that Ryan and Barb decide how to support programs that have quicker turnarounds on requests, Blair receives a meeting invitation from Barb.

When Barb arrives for the meeting, she describes what happened a year ago—one program decided to take an incremental approach to its work, which meant that it needed a series of small contracts rather than one large contract. Then fast-forwarding to a couple weeks ago, Barb explains how a different program is now taking a similar approach. A little frantic, Barb adds, “They’re just taking a different approach, which requires me to rethink things from a contracting perspective. Their needs are different, so I’m not sure if I should be supporting them in the same way or not. You know, when this started last year, your predecessor, Gia, told me to just do things the same old way and that if we didn’t keep the programs in line, this new way might catch on. I really want to do what the programs need. They’re my customers. I can easily adhere to the regulations and still support them, but Gia said that she and her boss needed to approve any contracts that were outside of the normal approach.”

Let’s look at decision-making next. Remember when we talked about agile organizations having the right response at the right time? Responding can mean making a decision to act or even to hold off on doing something. When change is happening quickly, decisions are often needed quickly, in order to allow time for the organization to respond in a timely and effective way. It’s hard to have the right solution at the right time if your decision-making processes are too hierarchical or slow.

When something changes—maybe it’s a new regulation or customers with slightly different needs (as Blair is experiencing)—it can take a long time for someone high up to recognize that those affected by the change need to know how to respond. Once the busy higher-up decision-maker realizes that a decision is needed, it might take time to figure out what information he needs, gather that information, and finally make a decision. After all of this, the decision must then be communicated to those who need to respond. Because this process takes time, responses come slowly.

When the decision does get communicated, it might be too late. Employees waiting for the decision may have decided on their own what to do. Or maybe they did nothing, which made things worse. And by making a tactical decision, the decision-maker had less time to focus on more strategic activities.

So how can you speed things up while still making good decisions? The answer is to ensure that the right people understand what decisions they are allowed and expected to make. The answer also involves making sure that those who should be making decisions feel that they have the authority to decide, no matter where they sit in the organization—executives at the top of the organization, middle managers, first-line supervisors, and individual contributors.

ENABLE DECISIONS AT THE LOWEST LEVEL POSSIBLE

What is the right level to make a decision? It depends on where the person with the most expertise or knowledge of the details surrounding the decision sits in the organizational structure. Decisions should be made at the lowest level possible. Some decisions are best made by those who are on the front lines with customers, while other decisions are best made by those in the middle or upper levels.

Even then, the person with the most knowledge of the decision details may not know everything he needs to know to make a good decision. The decision-maker may still need to gather information and figure out who else needs to be consulted. Having the authority to make a decision doesn’t necessarily mean it should be a unilateral decision. Agile organizations, as we saw in chapter 3, approach work collaboratively; it follows, then, that decisions should also be made collaboratively to whatever extent possible. The decision-maker should try to involve others to the extent that their input and support are needed, balancing speed with information.

In addition, employees need to know what decisions they are expected to make. We find that sometimes people are not aware that they are allowed to make certain decisions, which often results in their raising decisions to their bosses. We’ve talked to more than one boss who is frustrated and overwhelmed with a multitude of routine decisions that the direct reports could be making but are not. Clarifying each team member’s decision-making authority is one way to address that problem. Another way is to ensure that people feel psychologically safe when they are called to decide on matters that they are capable of owning. They must know that they won’t be punished or embarrassed if they make a decision that does not turn out well for reasons beyond their control. (Obviously, someone who intentionally makes a bad decision needs to be held accountable—via a separate conversation with their boss, not in a public forum. But barring that, you should back decisions that your employees make, even if you would have made a different decision. And be supportive of them when they employ a good decision-making process.)

MAKE AN INFORMED DECISION

Sometimes people think that pushing decisions down means that the decision-maker won’t have enough information to make a good decision. However, being asked to decide doesn’t mean being let off the hook for making a good decision. Decision-makers must still make good decisions by identifying options, gathering information on each option, and arriving at the best decision possible at the time. Although agility requires a timely decision, that decision must also be a good one, or as good as it can be in the time available. Every now and then, you might be better off making a fast decision rather than waiting to gather additional information. In those cases, you will need to weigh the risks of making the wrong call against the value that additional information could bring.

Another part of making a good decision is getting others involved. People in agile organizations work collaboratively and share information, which comes in handy when you are faced with an important decision. You may already know who to talk to, or maybe someone in your immediate circle knows who else needs to weigh in. Agility norms encourage people to come together to share information to make the best decision. And in collaborative decisions, you are not only making a better decision but also getting buy-in from others. That way, when it comes time to implement the decision, most people will already understand and be on board with the decision, allowing the organization to move even faster.

Of course, collaboration takes time up front, so you will need to find the right balance between speed and collaboration. But by pushing decisions down to the right level, when necessary, you are generally enabling decisions to be made faster, freeing up time for higher-level leaders to engage in decisions that are less routine and more strategic.

WIDELY SHARE DECISIONS

Once you’ve made a decision, if possible, share it—and the reasons behind it—with others. Most decisions can be shared. That said, not every decision can or should be shared. Personnel actions and decisions involving sensitive information, for example, can’t be shared with everyone. And not every decision needs to be shared; it would be too time-consuming to share every minor or routine decision that you make in a day. We don’t want your organization to get bogged down in everyone sharing every tidbit of information. So you will need to use good judgment about which decisions you should share and with whom—and that can take some practice. You might even pilot how you share your decisions by asking your colleagues for feedback.

We know that it’s only natural to make a decision and then move along in your day. But by taking time to share the decision and to explain your thought process behind it, you’ll set a good example for others, help them sense what’s going on around them, and encourage them to practice their own decision-making skills by reinforcing psychological safety. People must have a certain comfort level before they will make a decision and communicate it to others; when psychological safety is low, individual contributors are less likely to make and communicate decisions because they think someone will criticize their decision or, worse yet, overrule it. So by sharing your decisions, you are actually encouraging them to share theirs, modeling the behavior that you want to see in them. And as a bonus: understanding why a decision was made helps people work together to act on the decision.

When you do share, remember that your colleagues don’t know what you know; they might not even be aware that you made a certain decision. So before launching into a detailed explanation, consider just letting them know what decisions you’ve made, and then let them tell you the decisions they’d like to hear more about.

Finally, remember that decisions need to be shared in all directions. Decisions made at higher levels need to be shared downward, and decisions from the middle of the organization may need to be shared upward, downward, and laterally. People at lower levels also need to remember to share their decisions upward as well as across the organization. In most organizations, work is interconnected across departments and teams, so having visibility into decisions enhances people’s ability to coordinate their actions.

We know that sharing information can be time-consuming. Especially when situations are changing quickly, it’s easy to think that it’s okay to make a decision and then turn your attention to the next matter without communicating what you’ve decided. However, others might need to know what your decision was in order to make their own decisions. So in the long run, it’s a better investment of your time to find ways to communicate decisions now than to have to deal with a myriad of uncoordinated, uninformed decisions later on.

DON’T DEBATE, TEST IT OUT

One situation that inhibits timely decisions is when people debate with one another about options without arriving at a decision. You may have heard this described as “analysis paralysis.” Sometimes this occurs when decision-makers avoid deciding. Maybe they feel that they don’t have enough information or that none of the options are viable. Regardless, the result is often that people align into factions that support each option. Then the leader, after hearing each side debate and re-debate the options, despite having no new information, sometimes makes what she feels is the best decision at the time. This can unintentionally create a “winning” and “losing” side. People on the “losing” side then drag their feet when it’s time to implement the winning solution; or, when the decision is implemented and things don’t go perfectly (as is usually the case with something new), they convince the leader that the wrong decision was made, leading to its reversal.

To avoid this, we recommend replacing debate with experimentation and replacing the idea of winners and losers with an emphasis on collaboratively reaching a solution. How? Identify the options and ask people to work together to come up with a series of quick, inexpensive experiments to test out the essential parts of the solution. For example, if you are trying to find the best way to let employees know about a new internal program, you could test out two different communication methods, such as a story that appears in an internal newsletter and an informational session, in two different departments. Then measure (through a random poll or through the number of hits on the program’s intranet site) how many employees in each department are aware of the new program. If you advocate for the internal newsletter approach and your colleague advocates for the informational session, it’s okay if you and your colleague each try to make your preferred approach successful. Some level of competition can be productive, as long as the leader and group maintain psychological safety by not labeling people as winners or losers. Even those who advocate for an idea that is not ultimately adopted play an import ant role in uncovering the best solution.

The purpose of these experiments is to figure out quickly which option will solve the problem best and then to work out the kinks before the solution is put into place. Sometimes working out the kinks means combining different aspects of options to yield a solution. Then when it comes time to implement the solution, fewer things will go wrong. This cycle of experimentation and refinement often yields a better solution in less time than it takes to debate.

And along the way, people learn things that they never knew. They learn what didn’t work and, of course, what did. And they usually find a better solution by conducting iterative experiments than by advocating for their preferred solutions in the absence of experiments. By maintaining a focus on the problem and its solution instead of taking sides in a debate, the group also comes to better understand the chosen solution and buy into it, which will help when it’s time to implement.

FLATTEN THE STRUCTURE AND RESPOND WITH TEAMS

Delegating decisions is one way to make responding more timely. Again, when we talk about responding, we are talking about finding an effective solution in a timely way. Another way to enhance responding is to flatten the organizational structure as much as possible, as having too many layers of decisions slows down responsiveness. Although restructuring should not be done to address specific short-term changes, restructuring can help align the organization with changes that are predictable and will likely remain stable in the long run.

We’ve seen numerous organizations try to respond to short-term changes by restructuring. The sad fact, however, is that restructuring can take many years, depending on the extent of the effort. And when we talk to those at the bottom of the hierarchy, they often express a lack of support for restructuring because they know that it won’t help them carry out their work any faster or better. In fact, restructuring distracts them, increases uncertainty in an already uncertain situation, and uses considerable time and resources. Processes often remain the same in the restructured organization, and roles often remain unchanged or become even less clear than before the restructuring. People resist the new organizational structure because they know that the best-case scenario is that it won’t help them do their jobs better and the worst-case scenario is that it will make it harder to do their jobs.

Don’t get us wrong—every now and then an organization needs to restructure in order to set itself up to sense and respond. However, restructuring is a lever that leaders pull too often, in our opinion, to the exclusion of addressing other issues head on. If you are going to restructure your organization, be sure to do it for the right reasons—to make the organization flatter and speed up decision-making. And remember that the other levers are available for you to use as well.

MYTH: AS A LEADER, I WON’T KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON IF I DELEGATE DECISIONS

Leaders are sometimes concerned that they won’t know what’s going on in the organization unless they personally make certain decisions. But the truth is that, by putting in place a norm to share decisions that have been made as widely as possible, leaders can have more knowledge about what’s going on. And all decision-makers and leaders can have more insight into what is happening across all levels and stovepipes. Increased transparency puts everyone in a position to have more information and to know who else should provide input into a decision because they will be affected by it. The result of making decisions at the right level and then sharing them is that everyone can make more informed decisions.

Blair sits back, thinking about who should decide how best to support each program. After a pause, she says to Barb, “You know what you need to do to support them while also staying in line with regulations.”

Barb says, “Yes, of course. Basically, instead of one large contract, they are asking for smaller contracts with more task orders. It’s the same amount of work, just with a different cadence. However, if more of the programs start to go this way, not every contracting officer will know how to support them. I think that’s why Gia wanted to keep things the same—our process guides reflect the typical approach. If we changed things, then the guides wouldn’t always apply.”

“Hmm, I get it,” Blair replies. “But we are here for the programs. We should be supporting them—that’s our mission. Surely, they have good reasons for doing things differently, so we should help them. I also hear what you’re saying about how this change could affect our group’s work. I’d like you to decide how to best support Project Bravo’s immediate needs. I will back whatever decision you make. And would you like to talk to the rest of the team to see if they’re seeing the same changes? This might be a good informal leadership opportunity for you. Maybe talk to a couple of team members each day for a few minutes.”

“That sounds great,” Barb enthusiastically responds. “I’ll let you know what I find out in a week or so.” As Barb exits the virtual meeting room, Blair thinks, “That went well and is exactly how I want to lead this group! And I think it is what Ms. Barton is looking for when she talks about organizational agility.” Blair sees how her actions are starting to come together. Telling Barb that she would back her decision made it clear that Barb was expected to make the decision while reminding her that it was “safe.” Blair knows that Barb is in a better position to make this decision because she has all of the details about the programs’ contracting needs; Barb will be the one who has to act on her decision.

“Making the decision for Barb might feel good now,” Blair thinks, “but I don’t know enough and don’t have the time to guide Barb every step of the way. Barb is a great employee. She is more than capable enough to handle this on her own.”

Blair did give Barb guidance on how to approach the decision through sensing—making sure Barb talked to the rest of the team to see if they were seeing the same shift in program needs rather than influencing the decision itself.

As Blair signs off on Friday afternoon, Blair’s friend and former coworker, Luci, calls to catch up. Blair describes a conversation that she had with her boss’s boss, Mrs. Banks, that morning, saying, “It turns out that Mrs. Banks decided last year—months before I came on board—that contracting officers have to adhere to the process guides. However, no one on my team was aware of that decision, let alone asked to give input! I’ll need to talk with Ms. Barton about this on Monday. It doesn’t seem very agile not to ask for input from the people who will have to act on the decision, let alone not even tell anyone that a decision had been made. I’m glad my team didn’t get a reprimand. If they had, that would put an end to doing what our customers need!”

Blair recognizes that Mrs. Banks may not have made an informed decision, as she didn’t take the time to involve the people who would be affected. But Blair also gave Mrs. Banks the benefit of the doubt, recognizing that Mrs. Banks could have made the right call: after all, it’s possible there is something else going on that Blair isn’t aware of. Even so, Mrs. Banks should have communicated both the decision and rationale to the contracting officers who were affected. Blair’s strategy to first talk to Ms. Barton is a wise one; Ms. Barton may know the reason behind the decision. Also, talking to Ms. Barton will give Blair a chance to explain how easily her efforts to build up her team’s psychological safety could have been negated.

After hearing about Luci’s day, Blair shares again. “I did have one success today,” she says. “Barb and Ryan started outlining a different approach for supporting all of these new requests. They weren’t agreeing on the steps . . . and other people on the team started to take sides, so Barb and Ryan asked me to decide. I don’t know as much about those regulations as they do, or whether our software would even support a different process, so I asked them to walk through a couple of previous requests to test out which steps will work best. I can’t wait to find out what they learn!” Blair is pleased with her progress on delegating decisions, knowing that it will still take time to develop her team’s decision-making skills.

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