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I can’t tell you the number of times when people in my company brought a problem to me – often embarrassed – usually frozen in fear.  I remember one time our marketing team had published a catalogue that cost $100,000 and the 1-800 phone number printed on every page was wrong.  The problem landed on my desk as if I could magically solve it.  For most executives, this scenario plays out every week. 

No opportunity to ask more questions, get more data or convene a group to discuss – the requirement is a snap decision and often there is considerable risk associated with making the wrong decision. 

You get paid the big bucks to sit in the big chair – or at least that is what we tell ourselves. 

Speed of decision making drives growth

Let me offer some context – the firm I was with was growing at a rapid pace – geographical expansion, revenue growth, employee growth – doubling every three years.  This kind of environment requires an organization that can make decisions quickly or the whole thing stalls out.  In fact, we realized that our ability to make decisions and solve problems was going to be an enabler of growth.

The 11th hour crisis-decisions were evidence that we hadn’t quite embedded the required skills at all levels.  When an employee or a manager sits with a situation for too long because it is complicated or “in motion” it is the beginning of a larger problem.  After waiting too long the problem starts making its way up the hierarchical ladder and unless someone has had a previous experience with a similar situation it slowly gets pushed up the ladder – until it lands on a desk with no more time, and few options.  Usually it is the CEO who gets the ugly mess to sort out. 

What gets in the way of decision making?

Embedding decision-making prowess in an organization is not easy.  Despite the complaint from front-line workers that they feel no empowerment (the lack of authority to make decisions) many company executives tell me that those same employees fold even when encouraged to make the call themselves.  They abdicate and ask their managers for the “right” answer.   This dynamic is at the core of many of the culture problems we are faced with at 1-degree.  There is a need for more empowerment, more accountability and faster decisions but something gets in the way.  Fear.

We are afraid that if we make the wrong decision it will mark us as a failure.  If you ask employees “what is the worst that can happen?” it is surprising how far it goes…”I will be demoted”, ”I will be fired”, “my career will be ruined”, etc.  Wow!  Even if no person in that company has ever been fired or demoted the story has huge emotional weight. 

How to overcome the challenge of speed

What we found was that encouraging people to make decisions involves three key techniques: 

  • Celebrate learning: even if someone makes a decision that turns out to be a dud – celebrate what was learned in the process.  Of course if a person NEVER learns that is a problem. But in the meantime create venues for sharing learnings so that people start to understand that making decisions is not career suicide. 
  • Encourage group decisions:  teach your people the techniques of group decision making.  Help them to realize that there is safety in getting advice from people who can input to the decision – or at least the decision you make might be made 10% better with what comes out of those discussions.  Employees or managers who include people from other functions will LEARN a ton about how other parts of the business see things. 
  • Wait. Don’t jump in and fix things: if you are too quick to fix problems you are really teaching your employees that you like to take things off their hands.  Of course, senior execs are likely best to make the tough calls – and we often convince ourselves that this is where we really show our value – but fixing will do nothing to build the decision-making muscle in your organization long term.  Why would people ever put themselves on the line if the boss is willing to make all the tough decisions? 

What happened to our $100K screw-up?  I asked the team to gather a cross-functional team and brainstorm possible solutions and to come up with a solution by the end of the day.  I was amazed by some of the good ideas, but the simplest solution was to call the number we had printed in error and find out who owned it.  After a few back and forths the owner agreed to sell the 1-800 number to us.  Crisis averted. 

More importantly, the marketing team developed some muscle.  They learned a ton in the process.  “Figure it out” was a mantra often used.  I believe they grew in their confidence level – and they trusted the process of gathering people – some of whom were in random departments – to brainstorm problem solving.  No one got fired or demoted.  I didn’t try to fix it myself – I trusted the team to come up with something and they did.

By Nick Foster, co-founder of 1-degree