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.