Decision? What decision?

How decisions get made can be an organizational blind spot. It’s easy to see how. Those who make decisions are generally focused on the outcome of the decision. The process is secondary, sometimes almost invisible. But for those who don’t hold the decision-making power, it matters a lot that they understand what’s happening, why, and feel secure that important input will be incorporated.

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CULTURE MATTERS. Organizational cultures vary. Some groups have clear processes in place. Some may have very hierarchical decision-making processes. Other groups, such as those that value a high degree of flexibility or an organic approach to change, or those on the cusp of growing from a small to a mid-sized team, may end up with less clearly structured approaches to decisions. Any of these approaches can work, but if your organization frequently runs into challenges around its decision-making, it may be time to think through improvements. It’s important, however, to understand what your culture values and how that affects how decisions get made. If changes are made that don’t align with the culture, they may not stick.

BUILDING TRUST. Decision-making processes can have a significant impact on organizational trust. The whole staff needs to have trust that there will be:

  • transparency (affected staff are informed, the process for getting input and making the decision is clear, and there’s some avenue to review a decision that’s not working out)
  • consistency (similar decisions are made in similar ways)
  • reliability (there is follow-up and things aren’t changed after the fact)

This provides grounding for a sense of greater stability and trust that things work in a clear and predictable way. Even better is to ensure that when decisions or decision-making processes don’t work out well, the organization is committed to understanding why not and improving its skills.

Any decision-making framework—and the decisions made—may not feel perfect. But a strong team will engage in regular review of how things are working in practice. Reflecting on what’s working strengthens the organization’s learning. It also helps build team unity and commitment to decisions—even those they don’t agree with.

THE FRAMEWORK. The framework outlined below helps establish a consistent approach, with some built-in learning. It can be useful to practice the framework on smaller decisions first in case you need to make some adjustments for your organization.

STEP 1: FRAME IT. As the need for a particular decision emerges, there’s generally someone who is motivated to get an answer. We call this person—or group—the decision “driver.” The driver may not have ultimate decision-making authority, but they need a decision in order to move forward in some arena. The driver identifies a need and why it’s important to the organization. They can also move the process forward by suggesting who needs to make the decision, who will have what types of input at what stages, and how that input will be managed. If needed, they confirm this approach with the final decision-maker.

The driver also makes sure that the fact that this decision is under consideration is shared more broadly, perhaps with all staff, or with those most affected. It’s important for these stakeholders to understand the drivers behind the decision as well as the timing. Taking the time to set up the decision will not only help things move forward more smoothly, but it can also help capture wisdom from those who may have faced similar decisions.

STEP 2: CONSIDER AND DECIDE. This is the part that people are most used to. The driver (or designated team members) engage in whatever research or exploration is needed, as well as seeking initial input from key stakeholders. They may go through more than one iteration around an option, seeking follow-up input as they improve on their ideas. Based on this input, they develop a final set of options and a recommendation.The decision-maker(s) make the decision. The driver documents the process and notifies all key stakeholders.

STEP 3: REVIEW. There are two potential types of decision-making review:

Standard. Important decisions are subject to a short debrief to see how things are going over time. The leadership team could set aside one meeting per quarter to review decisions, for example.

Exceptional. Sometimes decisions may not be workable or may end up not being adhered to. Anyone should be able to request a review in this situation. The goal is to (a) understand why the decision wasn’t adhered to, (b) determine whether any shift makes sense, and (c) identify how these concerns could be addressed in future decisions.

What is important is that the review step is a consistent part of the process and that it is used to help the organization stay on track and not abandon a decision just because the decision or its implementation was flawed. Having this step in place allows the organization to ease up a bit on getting things right the first time.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES. A number of helpful frameworks focus on related aspects of decision-making. Some, like DARCI and RAPID, help address who should have what role in decision-making. Others, like The Social Transformation Project’s 5 Pathways to Effective Decision-Making, or this HBR article on “Deciding How to Decide,” focus more on what approach to use when. These frameworks can add to the consistency of a decision-making process.

The art of the follow-up question

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One of the critical tools in user-centered innovation is asking a lot of questions. You can make your questioning even more effective by perfecting the art of the follow-up question. In fact, even not-so-perfect follow-up questions will do.

The key is to find ways to break through assumptions. Like finding cracks in a smooth surface, you can chisel your way to a better program or product by making your team (or yourself) answer questions they wouldn’t otherwise think to ask.

How do you know?
This question goes right to the heart of the matter. Don’t be satisfied with what you think you know. Take a look at where the thinking comes from. In particular, if you’re thinking about a product that meets needs for some clientele (external or internal), have you asked them about it? When you do ask for more input, be sure you’re not biased to confirming your assumptions. You’ll get more creative solutions if you can take an open-ended approach that might yield you some nuggets of wisdom to improve your ideas.

What have you forgotten?
This is a great question to ask at multiple stages along the path of developing a concept. It makes you pause. It can be used in a peer coaching context. For example, two team members could have a brief weekly check-in to ask each other this question about their current work. If you’re stuck and can’t think of anything you’ve forgotten, ask someone else, “What have I forgotten?”

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How can it be simpler?
This is one of my favorites. People often think big in developing solutions. This can occur out of enthusiasm--or out of fear of failing if they don’t think of everything. Either way, the risk is that things get stuck because the prospect of implementing them becomes overwhelming. “How can it be simpler” helps break things down into bite-sized pieces. Typically I’ll ask it at least two or three times to stretch a team’s thinking beyond what they first imagine.

The general “How can it be…?” approach can be used in other contexts as well. For example, in brainstorming, I’ll ask people to come up with a crazy idea. They’ll typically stretch a little for this. Then I ask them to come up with something even crazier. This time around, it feels more like a game, which means people get playful--and really creative.

You get the idea. It’s related to the concept of “5 Whys,” nicely explained here by Mindtools. Give it a try--and see what you can shake loose.

Flying Under New York

I was on a plane recently that was taking off from Newark.  As we taxied along the runway, a little girl behind me said,

“Mommy!  Is that New York City?  Are we going to fly over it?”  Without missing a beat, she added, “Imagine if we flew under it!”

I was amazed.  How did she do that?  How did she so effortlessly veer from the real to the fantastic?  Let’s fly under New York!  

As someone who spends a lot of time coaxing people to think outside the box, I’ve developed a great appreciation for the power of envisioning the impossible, of flying free of constraints--or devising solutions within ridiculous constraints. 

This gift we have, of imagination, of seeing beyond what is to what might, perhaps, in some alternate state of the world, be possible, brings us the joy of exploration and the delight of making something better than it was.  But it stands in constant tension with our desire for safety, for comfort, for the familiar and routine. 

 It takes a certain vigilance to hold that creative space within ourselves and our organizations. We have to keep cracking open the doors to let the crazy ideas slip in and shape us.

Let’s fly under New York.

Show, don't tell.

In a word, prototype.  

Then get feedback.

Why?  Well, why guess what your customers want if you don't have to?  If you're designing a product, a program, an event, or a service without feedback, you're doing more work than you need to.  Start early to get input, and keep bouncing your concept off potential users as it develops. That way, you're vetting the approach you're taking every step of the way.

Nor do prototypes have to be fancy.  The simpler they are—paper and sticky notes, cardboard and tape—the less they cost you in time and money, and the less attached you are to their success.  You can also develop multiple prototypes to get a wider range of feedback.

A great example comes from the Nordstrom Innovation Lab’s “flash build” of a sunglass app. The team actually built the app, from paper prototypes to finished product, in the sunglass department of one of their stores.  If Nordstrom’s isn’t embarrassed to hold sheets of paper up to a customer and call it an app, you shouldn’t be either.

Do Less

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I recently had a conversation with a colleague from the lean systems world in which he reflected that many organizations are trying to do more and more with less and less.  He joked that his motto is, “Do less.”

Do less. Counterintuitive for those of us busy on the hamster wheel.  But it’s the essence of lean thinking: why are we doing more than what’s really necessary to move to the next step?  What’s important, and what’s embellishment? 

Some years back, I had an essay I wrote accepted by a magazine—on the condition that I cut it from 600 to 300 words. It was painful to let go of my words, sentence by sentence. But guess what—in the end, it was tight, it was polished, and no one but me knew what wasn’t there.

The key is to keep the focus on what we most need to learn. What’s the simplest way to get there? What’s even simpler than that? Do less.

What's not to like about design thinking?

What you don’t like about design thinking may be even more important than what you like.  Because tapping into creativity, doing things differently, thinking out of the box can be, well, uncomfortable.  That’s why we don’t do them in the first place. 

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Take brainstorming.  Design thinking encourages wild ideas—because it’s much easier to get from an off-the-wall idea to a useful one than from a business-as-usual idea to a breakthrough idea.  But most of us are so used to censoring our wild ideas that putting them out there feels embarrassing and awkward.  In my initial design thinking workshop experiences, I found myself constantly comparing my ideas to others.  Mostly negatively, but sometimes—ha!—my idea was definitely the best.  Until something better came along from some other group that had gone down a different path.  Dang, humbled again.

And there, perhaps, is the real juice of the experience.  New and creative ideas can lead to key shifts in perspective.  At the same time, however, you’re getting a great opportunity to notice what makes you uncomfortable, and why.  Maybe it’s comparing ideas, maybe it’s some of the wilder tangents your team goes on, maybe it’s a process that seems nonlinear, or maybe it’s other people’s need to keep things in the box that gets your goat. 

Sitting with that discomfort, whatever it is, while the process unfolds around you, is all part of the learning.  What is it that holds you back from stepping out of the box?  What holds your organization back?  Whatever it is, it’s likely to be something you’re so used to that you don’t even realize how you hold back.  Until some crazy idea throws it in your face.