Effective and Efficient Decision Making

How to balance quality, ownership, and efficiency.

The problem

Let us suppose a group of people, perhaps a workgroup, have a problem to solve. They need to make a decision and have their solution happen on the ground.

Ideally, they want the decision to be the right one, a high-quality decision. If the problem is complicated, it’s probable that no single person in the group will have all the ideas and information to solve the problem. It may need input from lots of people. This will take time.

They also want people to implement the decision. People are much more likely to implement a decision if they are involved in creating it. Then the decision and the consequent action becomes theirs. They own it. Ownership is vital when the solution requires people to use their own thinking and initiative to get the solution to work. If you want people to own a decision and deliver a solution, you have at least to listen to them and incorporate their ideas. This also takes time.

Finally, most workgroups are busy. When they meet their agenda is full. They want to make decisions quickly. Efficiency is important. It conflicts with the other two factors that make for effective decision-making, quality, and ownership. This looks at first sight like an impossible bind.

What can we do about it?

  • Create systems for recurring problems.

Many of the problems or issues groups face recur. In this case, it is worth standing back from them and devising a system to deal with them. It might take a bit longer but will save much time in the long run.

(A trivial example, if an organisation runs regular meetings with customers, they should have a system for organising them. It would be grossly inefficient to organise every detail of each one from first principles)

  • Learn how to work together better.

Decision-making meetings are complicated. People have their own agendas and needs, and time is usually scarce. After every meeting, or halfway through a long one, talk about how the meeting went and how the next one, or the next part could be even better. If you can do this in a spirit of open enquiry, not blame, you will soon get better at making high-quality decisions, that people own, efficiently.

(You can ask everyone for their comments on what they learned, what was good about the meeting and how the next one could be better. Give everyone equal time to speak and in reverse order of seniority. People are then more likely to think independently.)

  • Take time to be clear about what you want to decide and why.

Make sure everyone is clear what you are trying to decide and why before you start working on the issue. This will help everybody focus their contributions and avoid wasting time going up blind alleys. You can agree, “If this discussion were successful, what would we have decided”. Then you will know what you are aiming for.

(Coverdale Training www.coverdale.co.uk is excellent about this. Their systematic approach is here.

  • Plan how you decide things

Decisions differ in complexity, importance, urgency, uniqueness, and their impact on people. Every decision does not need to be made in the same way. The simple model below is one way of thinking about this. It is for a simple four-person organisation. You can easily extend it to any number. Use it to think about some recent decisions and to plan some. This will help you internalise the model. No organisation would want to use it formally for every decision.

M is the decision manager. There can only be one M. This person’s job is to make sure the decision happens. He or she may or may not be directly involved in making the decision.

D’s are directly involved in making the decision.

C’s are consulted about the decision. Their views are listened to and taken into account, but they are not directly involved in making the decision.

I’s are informed about the decision.

Manager Sales person Technician Administrator
Organise office D C C M/D
Move to a new location M/D C I I
Create a sales plan M/D D I I
Improve IT system C C M/D C

(In the last example, the technician observes that the IT system is not working as well as it should be. He or she decides to do something about this. In the role of M (decision manager) he decides to consult his colleagues before deciding what needs to be done (D). This is a technical problem and the expertise to make the improvements lies with the technician. His or her colleagues will have input as to what improvements are necessary.)

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick