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A few of us held a conversation yesterday about how we make decisions in our organisation. This discussion was initiated by our understandable nervousness about what it means to be ‘self-managing’.

In command and control style organisations – characterised as ‘amber‘ and ‘green‘ organisations in Frederick Laloux’s ‘Reinventing Organisations’, a book that has played an important part in our journey to connect with our purpose Here – managers make decisions; workers carry out the managers’ instructions. Or so the orthodoxy says, although in reality, of course (except perhaps in the worst sort of call centres or sweat shops) workers also make decisions all the time: will I take any notice of this instruction? –how assiduously will I do this? – will I stay behind to finish this piece of work today?

In amber (and green) organisations, then, workers do make decisions and the difference is to do only with the perceived importance or magnitude of the decision. A team may have authority to work out their own shift patterns, or choose the décor of their workspace, but ‘important decisions’ that might affect the organisation’s business prospects are the preserve of the trusted few.

Our experience fundamentally challenges this model. It continuously reminds us that in an organisation which must work at scale, the restriction of the important decisions to an inner circle is at best aspirational rather than real. Effective, efficient and purposeful operational delivery requires that everyone has the tools and the permission to make decisions and choices about how our work is carried out. 

Decisions require access to all the information linked to the issue that requires a decision as a starting point.

According to ‘Leadership is a conversation’ a feature in Harvard Business Review in 2012, Athenahealth, a US based health technology organisation (which my fellow director Jonathan visited last week):

“treats every last one of its employees as ‘insiders’- defined as employees who are entrusted with strategic and financial information that could materially affect the company’s ….. stock price”. 

At Here, our vision is that everyone within our organisation is an ‘insider’ too, and that as insiders, everyone has ‘authority’* to make decisions about the issues that they encounter. In our conversation yesterday we noticed three things that sometimes happen, that we need to pay attention to:

  1. We are getting ourselves into difficulties when we don’t even recognise that we are making a decision. This is especially when we make a decision to not change something or not to do something – shall I start doing x, or shall I just keep doing what I have been doing (it will probably all be ok)?
  2. We make decisions without taking into account who or what might be affected by this decision.
  3. We make decisions without talking to others outside of our team who have had to make decisions about similar problems, and we don’t gain from their learning.

There are lots of management theory type books about decision making; I am not sure how good they are. I did read one simple axiom and it probably has some validity.

Solutions are rarely binary – do a) or b), do nothing or do x. When we are facing a problem and the solution looks only binary, that is the time to seek advice.

In a radio interview this morning, Tony Blair described his two decisions which attracted the most damning criticism in the Chilcott Report, to go to war to topple Saddam, and to position the UK as the USA’s number one ally as ‘binary’. The consequences of his thinking speak for themselves.

We distilled our thinking into a very short framework for what to do when we face an issue or a problem:

  • Am I making a decision?
  • Who might this decision impact on?
  • Do I understand all the implications?
  • Who might be an ‘expert’ in this issue?
  • If the answer to any of the questions above is yes, seek advice from others, the more people it impacts on the more advice I need

*Authority: from Latin “auctor” = originator, promoter

tagged in decision making, Enabling Team, self management

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