Tricky job of decision making

LEADERSHIP is about making decisions. Understanding what decisions need to be made, what questions need to be asked and finding the best answer.

In Robert Heinlein’s book Starship Troopers, sage advice to a newly minted Lieutenant in the pressure of war came from the local commander.

“You discover with a sickening shock that your team are depending on you alone to tell them what to do,” the commander says to the nervous lieutenant. “They wait for the sure voice of command, and it’s up to you to be that voice, make decisions.” Those same words can be applied to any manager.

There are no worse moments than when a member of your team comes to you with the question, “Where are we going?”

Your boss may give you general goals and objectives. It’s up to you to translate this into the day to day actions every part of your team needs to execute. Hesitation is not an option.

Meetings are not necessarily the way out. Meetings can be blockers to speedy decision making. The larger the meeting, the more critical the decision, the less likely that the meeting will produce an outcome. Yes, any outcome! In making any decision, there is always an unwritten option — do nothing.

Growing the business, increasing the sales force, changing the support infrastructure — all require a major investment and upheaval to an organisation. Many people seek change, at least until the tip of their tongues. Getting their cooperation in making the change requires sacrifice — time, money, resources. At the same time, the day to day activities of the team still need to be delivered.

The challenge of “changing the engines while the plane is still flying” often becomes too much, especially when the benefit of the decision is not clearly stated. Walking away or complaining at the water cooler are often more attractive options.

Gaining agreement and buy-in is key to moving things forward. Simply telling people, “This is how we will do it,” is a recipe for failure.

In Japan, decisions are made by consensus. Discussions on the golf course, over drinks, in informal settings contribute to gaining agreement before the meeting to present the idea or course of action. Spending time with the key members of your team and others whose cooperation you need will simplify agreement and successful execution. Be prepared to give so you can get. Cooperation is all about an exchange of value. For example, a colleague may want some extra budget for temporary workers to fill the gaps. Giving this may free up resources necessary for project success.

Meetings can dilute the ultimate answer leading to a solution no one wants or needs. In Australia, many years ago, British Leyland released their ultimate vehicle — the P76 family sedan. Designed by asking numerous people their opinions, all the requirements were put in.

A large boot, room for the whole family and easy to drive, it was the most hideous vehicle ever to roll out. On paper, it should have been a winner. It was a child of compromise and not even Italian design talent could save it. It was a styling and financial disaster.

Leadership is about decision making. Those decisions affect people. To ensure success, those people must buy in to support the decisions. Spend some time on the following:

1. Define the outcome: Define what will come out of the decision and how different groups will benefit. Keep the benefit statements simple and understandable.

2. Gain consensus: Meet with the key people affected by the decision, whether in your own team or in other parts of the business. Don’t assume just because you are the boss that people will follow blindly. There are many ways for people to agree but not deliver on a change.

3. Hold the meeting: Call the meeting to begin the change once you have gained consensus. Keep it to the group affected.

4. Publish the results: Minutes of meetings are not as popular as they once were. Send an e-mail to everyone affected highlighting the decision and the actions to be completed.

Following this process will keep people informed, allow them to buy in to the decision and be part of the solution. Keep everyone informed during the process and celebrate success.

● Hugh has 10 years experience building technical teams in the Asean region.

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