Anatomy of a Good Decision

An executive in a knowledge organization is making decisions every day. The nature and scope of these decisions vary from small approvals to making strategic long-term choices. But what is always there in an executive’s life is plenty of decision-making. The thing worse than making wrong decision is making no decisions. An executive with a stalled decision-making capability – potentially always in an analysis-paralysis mode – is headed nowhere.

9758917325_93c0df18baDecision are also very obvious and public. You see world leaders announcing their picks for key appointments or a major foreign policy decision very publicly. Business leaders make sure their organization’s key strategic decisions of going into a new market or making an acquisition are known to everyone.

This sometime can make one see decisions as events rather than a process.  Making a decision is the end of a process, not just execution of an event. There is a lot of homework and evaluation done behind every major decision. Announcing or communicating those decisions to stakeholder is the event that potentially completes the process.

So what does that process entail – or should entail?

Evaluating at the highest conceptual level While what may come to an executive’s desk for a decision may be the result of a specific situation – news of a competitor’s buy-out, a bad review of a product, a request for a meeting, an unexpected resignation – it needs to be evaluated at the highest conceptual level. What does this event relate into? Which compartment of the organization does it belong to? An executive, while thoroughly triages the event or situation, connects it to a ‘bigger picture’ and makes a decision based on how he believes and has planned to do in the bigger scheme of things. The response is part of a bigger policy rather than an ad-hoc and arbitrary response to a situation. For example, how does the company generally handle bad news? what is the company’s policy to respond to bad press? how does the resignation of an employee fit into company’s year long employment plans?

This ability to raise from the chaos and smoke of the battlefield to a strategic location with a wider view is critical to effective decisions. There is no such thing as an independent and isolated decision. Every decision fits into a bigger whole.

Evaluating the alternatives Every good decision is made after evaluating the alternatives. Explicitly crafting and thinking them out is critical to a balanced decision. An executive mind’s runs through parallel decision paths before converging on one. It is never a linear process. For example: how would the top three candidates do in a particular role? how does a decision to invest in a particular market compares to alternate decisions to invest in another market or to not investing at all.

The challenge is that these alternatives are mostly not obvious. They have to crafted out, imagined, brought to life and made part of the decision-making process.

Defining actions to implement Drucker said that decision are merely statement of intentions unless they are associated with actions to implement them. At least an action to get started. That is what happens everyday. Decisions are made, declared and hyped – but they never get implemented. Immediately defining and associating a set of actions along with the decision will entail effective implementation. For example a decision to expand a team is associated with release of budget and communication to HR; or a decision to meet an executive from another business unit is immediately followed by sending the request to schedule to his staff.

Communicating the decision Every decision has stakeholders – people who are or can be affected or those who need to be informed. One of the most logical immediate ‘action items’ associated with a decision is to communicate the decision to the stakeholders. For example, updating HR about a decision to hire or informing the company’s shareholders about a strategic business direction. Communication is part of the task.

Follow up Most decisions require a long-term implementation or monitoring. Many decisions get lost in organizational chaos if not properly followed up or checked on for progress and input. All systems and processes move towards chaos – unless they are checked upon, followed through and refined and energized as required.

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Communication is Part of the Task

In project management world, here is typically how communication about tasks takes place.

A team member completes a task assigned to her, and then makes an additional and distinct effort to communicate that she is done with it. She can do so by email, updating a project management tool or by simply shouting out loud in the team hall.

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While the shouting-out-loud may not be fun, what is worse is that she can potentially skip the shouting (or sending the email).

The stage of working on the task assigned to her, and her communication about its completion, are treated as two completely independent and distinct items. The communication requires proactive and explicit effort – sometimes very much an after-thought event!

This has the obvious failing of missing out on the communication part. After all, it’s the task that is more important, right? And you are doing a favor by additionally letting others know about it.

So imagine the day when she forgets to shout out in the hall that she is done. While you may not miss the shouting, you will certainly miss out on the communication. You would never know that you can now start something which was based on she being done. Even more, she may be wondering why you are not starting what you were supposed to. After all, she is done!

Interesting!

The problem is that communicating about something we are responsible for has always been kept separate – and worst even secondary and less important – than the actual work being done. Project managers consider it their responsibility going around actively asking for statuses. Team members consider updating the project management tool an unnecessary chore – better left for end of the day or when pounded on by the project manager. Software programmers simply ‘check-in’ their completed code but don’t intimate others they are done. And the list goes on.

This has the obvious failings of everybody in the team being at different levels of understandings. You may be waiting for something which is already done – which is obviously a productivity loss. There may be duplication of effort. There can be chaos and confusion. There can be a lot of shouting – but all for the wrong reason.

Common sense, right? We all know these problems. Unfortunately, this is how we fix it. We motivate more active communication. We keep enforcing it as a distinct post-work activity.

We need to merge the ‘working’ and ‘communicating’ parts.

Communicating to relevant people about what you are doing needs to be part of the task itself – not separate from it. The task is not done until it is completed and communicated to whomever it needs to be communicated to. It is not a post-activity, afterthought or favor. It is the final step of what you are doing.

Updating your project tracking tool needs be part of the work – not separate from it. Sending an email intimation should be done before you can say you are done. Telling your fellow programmers that you have checked in the code, and they can proceed, is part of your work – not a bonus item you add.

There is no such thing as no communication – you are always communicating. If you are not shouting out in the hall – all you are saying is that you are not done!

Happy Birthday Thinking Spirits!

So, finally it’s a year of blogging. Happy Birthday to all of you!

My first real post was It Depends. It shows I was confused from the start. I had to even write a It Depends – 2 the following week.

And interestingly, this post is the 50th on the blog – almost 1 post per week. Good, but can be better.

And though Change Sucks, but change is good – so you can see a new theme for the blog!

In the spirit of last two posts on value of measurements, I decide to do some measurements of my own for the blog. And since Appearance Matters, I put them into infographics.

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I have managed to consolidate all writings into 5 core themes – Knowledge Work, Leadership, Communication, Productivity and Time Management. The 50 posts are distributed like:

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The Dark Side of Decision Making

While watching a cricket match over the weekend, the commentators were lamenting why a particular player was not selected for the encounter. They argued that he had been performing well, is an important member of the team and had no injuries. They conjectured and speculated. There did not seem to be any apparent reason not to pick him for the match. Suddenly, the captain and coach looked dumb.

Every day, we come across decisions around us that apparently do not make sense. A logical analysis of the known facts and visible indicators reveal them as imprudent and silly. There is a giant corporate’s surprise decision to acquire a startup; another is firing an apparently well-performing CEO; another decides to ban work from home; there is a surprise decision to bypass someone for a promotion (he had already planned the party); a product is retired that seemed to just start making money; or a player not picked up to play when that was all that made sense.

These executives making all these big decisions – they are all morons! Who put them in there in the first place?

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Simple is Better …

Communication is what the listener does. The message they hear matters more than the message you speak.

This has to be one of the most profound principles that should govern communication between two people. It is about the ability and capacity of the person listening, not about the verbosity or grandiloquence of the speaker.

Everyone is at a different level of intellect, intelligence and comprehension. Everyone oscillates at their own frequency. You have to fine-tune a radio set to clearly listen to a channel. Similarly you have to know the right details of a receiver to be able to connect and communicate. A channel broadcasted that no one can tune to is a channel that does not exist. To communicate effectively entails transcending to the intellectual level and capacity of the person on the other end and then communicate. That is why teaching to first graders is most difficult – and schools entrust that job to the most trained teachers.

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Compilers are easy, People are difficult

I try not to get very techie in my posts, keeping my Computer Science background in the hood. The intent is to talk about management issues that transcend a specific domain.

But sometimes the temptation to get out of the hood gets … well – too tempting. Specially, when you can use a good analogy to explain something important. For example, how can the compiler tool help us model where we go wrong in managing people.

A compiler is a key ingredient of the life of a software developer. It translates the code that software programmers write into a language that the computer understands. When you see a programmer furiously typing away on his screen telling you he is writing code (to make the world a better place), in reality what he is writing is really for himself, his team and manager only. He is writing down what he thinks the software should do in a prescribed format and structure – it’s just standard English with a very strict grammar. However, the computer that needs to make that software available to the world, lives in its own complex world with its own language and rules. There is a need to translate what the programmer writes into a language that the computer understands. That is what a compiler does. When asked by the programmer, it takes all the fancy writings by the programmer and creates the instructions that the computer can work with. It’s like hiring a language interpreter when you visit the Amazon tribes. The fancy English you speak is unfathomable to the half-clad and crocodile hunting tribesman. The language interpreter acts like a compiler, taking what you say and other data like your facial expressions and body language, and translates into what the tribesman can understand. Hopefully, you and the tribesman can eat the crocodile together rather than they together having you for dinner.

Well, the idea is not to teach you about compilers but why it is relevant to our topic – why smart people fail miserably when they move from a technical role to one involving dealing with people.

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Communicating in Chaos – The Gongs and Banners Model

On the field of battle, the spoken word does not carry far enough: hence the institution of gongs and drums. Nor can ordinary objects be seen clearly enough: hence the institution of banners and flags.

Gongs and drums, banners and flags, are means whereby the ears and eyes of the host may be focused on one particular point.

In night-fighting, then, make much use of signal-fires and drums, and in fighting by day, of flags and banners, as a means of influencing the ears and eyes of your army.
      — Sun Tzu (The Art of War)

ImageThis has to be one of the most profound lessons from the great book – not only militarily but also for managers in knowledge organizations. Simply put: you cannot communicate by ordinary means in extra-ordinary circumstances. You have to use stronger and more forceful tools to get your message across the battle chaos. 

In theatre in front of live audience, the gestures and motions of the actors on stage are louder and exaggerated – for example, they will move their hands in a wider area around their body. They will speak louder too. Even their facial makeups are more pronounced. This is to ensure that their emotions, gestures and words communicate effectively to the audience in a setting which is more challenging and demanding. 

Remember, Communication is what the listener does

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