The Business Improvement Network

Organisational decision making

By Paul Jones

“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
Theodore Roosevelt

Ask the majority of executives whether they are satisfied with the level and ability of their teams to make decisions, and the answer is invariably no. Decisions are often avoided, probably ignored until the last minute or, at the very least, ill-considered decisions are taken resulting in confusion, stagnation, low morale and reduced profit. Organisational success relies on the ability of all employees to make good decisions in line with the overarching strategy. Often, this is not the case.

In many organisations employees are more proficient at highlighting problems rather than actually doing something about them. There are many reasons why individuals may not take decisions: through fear of being judged; through a lack of accountability; by not fully understanding the context; a lack of clarity over existing roles and responsibilities (the classic ‘I thought you were doing that!’ example); through displaying poor team behaviours and not collaborating with others; through a lack of engagement, and by not feeling fully supported by their superiors. 

If a decision is seen as ‘final’ by an individual, it can also be a very daunting prospect to have to make one. The reality, however, is that decisions are anything but final – they are only ever transitory in nature. They are relevant only in the moment they are taken, that is to say that the right decision today will not necessarily be the right decision tomorrow. Spending time initially really trying to understand the problem will always pay dividends; as Charles Kettering so ably put it “A problem well understood is a problem half-solved”. As the situation reveals itself and becomes clearer over time, a sub-standard decision can always be improved upon at a later date. Indeed, to achieve success, it must constantly be improved. Decisions should be continuously reassessed and updated as required in relation to the changing environment, in order to remain effective on the path to a successful outcome. It will always be better to make a decision now, even if the picture is not entirely clear, rather than do nothing and wait in the hope that all the facts will reveal themselves at a later date. In business, it is extremely unlikely that any situation will have the absolute level of clarity desired; uncertainty is a fact of life and navigating the fog a daily occurrence for executives. Courage is required. Yet it is always better to seize the initiative, make a decision based on what you do know and to be proactive, rather than wait to see either if the situation becomes clearer or if events eventually turn out favourably. By then, it will almost always invariably be too late and initiative would have been handed over to the competition.

There are many different decision-making models, but in essence they follow a similar path:

What is the problem;
What do I need to consider;
What are my options;
What is the best option;
Communicate the best option.

Decision making requires a conscious thought-process to take action and by its very nature focuses more on output - solutions - rather than input - problems. It is a formalised, conscious thought-process of knowing that a decision must be taken, even if at the moment the best decision is to do nothing. The process doesn't have to take long; if there are only a few minutes to make a decision, then that is all that is required. If there is more time available, then the same process is followed but deeper analysis can be conducted to achieve a more-thorough and effective solution. The trick is to make decisions consciously, with problems and solutions brought to the front-of-mind. This has the added benefit of being able to justify and explain a decision taken complete with its relative strengths and weaknesses. The answer to the question ‘Why have you made this decision?’ should never be ‘I don’t know really!’. No decision will ever be complete and perfect. Understanding where there are risks and weaknesses with every decision is an important part of the process, and allows for decisions to be constantly improved and updated over time, and to know where to mitigate risk. Once a decision has been made, it is important for the originator not to over-personalise it or become sensitive to its future. By continuously asking the question ‘Is this decision still valid?’ allows for objectivity. Bias can be removed and objective analysis applied. It doesn’t matter where, how or by whom a decision has been taken; the only important consideration is – ‘Is the decision working and is it having the desired effect for the organisation?’

Organisational decisions are seldom made in isolation. Understanding the context within which decisions are made will assist in making better, more-informed decisions. Understanding the ecosystem and network can assist with individual decision making, as well as a sound understanding of the organisational strategy. A strategy can either set direction by giving a compass heading to follow, or by giving a destination, or indeed both. It is not itself a plan and must maintain a degree of flexibility as events unfold, by providing the organisation with a framework for decision-making, based on some basic choices about how to compete moving forwards. It also provides a guiding light to help make decision-making more effective. It is fundamentally a task and a purpose – the ‘what’ we are doing and the ‘why’ we are doing it. Even if our destination is unclear or there is confusion surrounding our current situation, to have some sense of the end-state to be achieved gives our current actions and decisions a greater sense of purpose and improved organisational alignment. This is particularly pertinent when the current situation is volatile and highly unpredictable, as it is imperative to take action now in order to get into a better position than at present. Unconsciously doing nothing is not an option. A robust strategy in itself will not guarantee more effective organisational decision making, but it certainly makes it a far more likely outcome and increases the likelihood that all teams will be moving in the right direction.

Strategy is just the tip of the decision-making iceberg. As the business guru Peter Drucker put it “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Having the right organisational culture that binds employees to the greater good of the organisation will greatly improve the decision making process. There must be growth potential for employees, there must be strong organisational ethos and values to allow buy-in, and strong, supportive leadership to allow individuals to make mistakes, to learn from them and be coached and encouraged to make better decisions in the future. An uncomfortable truth for organisations is that the inability of individuals to take decisions rests more with the organisation itself than it does with the individuals. Whilst most employees can improve their individual decision-making ability by practicing and following the simple process above, organisations can do far more to assist; by empowering employees, allowing and encouraging them to seize the initiative and make mistakes; by setting a clear strategy; and by establishing clear roles, responsibilities, objectives and boundaries. To assume that people cannot take decisions is wholly wrong; after all, outside of the work environment employees make hundreds of decisions every day.

True organisational success comes from the bottom up, the wisdom of the masses rather than the wisdom of the chosen few, where everyone is willing to seize the initiative and take decisions for the greater good, in line with their roles and responsibilities. They react fast within ever-changing circumstances as the situation unfolds, in line with organisational intent, rather than waiting for guidance and direction from above. Being reactive and waiting to be told what to do only serves to stifle initiative and makes an organisation ponderous. Effective planning, creating alignment and enabling people to take action through simple communication is essential; the best decisions are often the most simple. Generating activity is easy to do. The trick is generating the right activity, getting the right things done. Repeatedly ask ‘what am I trying to achieve and how will it align with the strategy?’ Don’t get trapped in a ‘cause-and-effect’ loop being busy simply being busy but ultimately achieving very little. It is easy to confuse quality with quantity and clarity with detail. Clarity and simplicity are key to effective decision making, particularly when operating in chaotic and uncertain environments. At every level, leaders need to add clarity and simplicity to the situation to aid employees’ understanding and allow them to make more effective decisions in line with the stated direction. Ultimately, executives need to stop asking what the employees need to do more of to improve decision-making, and ask what more they themselves can do to help individuals make more effective decisions, for the greater benefit of the organisation. Success breeds success, but confident decision-makers need the right support, environment, culture, strategy and leadership to thrive. It may take time to achieve. But the decision to improve employees’ and the organisation’s ability to take decisions might just be the most important one yet.

About the author

Paul Jones

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