Note: This is the third in a series of posts related to decision-making. The first two posts are here and here. The introduction to the importance of decision-making for leaders is here.
Have you ever turned on a hotel shower to find that the water was too cold, so you turned it up but then it became too hot, and back and forth you went until you eventually got it right? The oscillating temperature was the result of a very simple system that has a delay between an action and its results.
Recently I posted about the responsibility leaders have for making decisions, and identified six disciplines necessary for better decision-making. This post describes the second of those disciplines, clear decision rights.
It is a rare day when leaders do not have to make decisions of some consequence. Whether deciding how to respond to an unexpected move by a competitor or supplier, what features to include in a new product, or choosing between two promising candidates for a job, decisions are a daily occurrence.
In my last post I described how leaders are responsible for making decisions, and I listed six disciplines of good decision-making. This post discusses the first of those disciplines, a good strategy process.
We often think of accurate information and analytic skills as critical for good decisions, and, of course, they are. But a good strategy process is also required. Why? Too often, leaders reserve too much decision-making for themselves. Although the decisions may be good, the pace is glacial. Leaders need to share the responsibility of decision-making with others to ensure adequate pace, and a good strategy process will help ensure quality.
Leaders have many responsibilities. The COO is responsible for delivering product on time and on target for cost and quality. The CFO is responsible for ensuring proper financial statements and managing the balance sheet. Of course, the CEO is responsible for the overall performance of the company. But what ultimately distinguishes leaders from managers or front line staff is their responsibility to make decisions.
Decisions come in all sizes and shapes. From the mundane: Should we close the office early due to the impending snow storm? To the profound: Should we launch a bid for a competitor as a way to increase our manufacturing capacity? Decisions are the essence of what leaders do. It doesn’t take a leader to manage a business process and monitor its performance or that of the people performing it. But it does take a leader to make a decision when a manufacturing process is derailed because of an equipment malfunction that threatens delivery of this month’s product to expectant customers.
When I got my pilot’s license it took about 60 hours of training flight time before I was ready for my written test and check ride. However it took only about 10 hours of flight time to become familiar with the basic skills necessary for takeoff and landing, the two most critical aspects of flying. So what were the remaining 50 hours for? In addition to honing basic flight skills, much of the time was spent practicing for endless “what if” scenarios: loss of power; navigation challenges; bad weather; etc. At the core of this training was a focus on quickly and properly diagnosing challenging situations.
As I discussed in my last post, there is an archetypal style of leadership where the impulse reaction when things don’t go quite as planned is table pounding, which typically generates unproductive kinetic energy. The Table Pounder almost always skips the most important first step of resolving a problem, diagnosis. Some may believe that in a critical situation, the luxury of diagnosis is unaffordable. I would argue that diagnosis 1) can be quick; and 2) is most valuable in critical situations, where the cost of a second misstep could be catastrophic.
Every organization at some time and in some parts will under perform. Even Apple, Google, GE and other exemplars of management acumen will inevitably find themselves a day late or a dollar short in some of their plans. The way leaders address that under performance speaks volumes about how durable the organization is and how well it immunizes itself against further under performance.
There are numerous models of leadership intervention during times of under performance. One particularly ineffective archetype is the Table Pounder.
Photo: Boston Customs House - November 28, 2009
For over 20 years, I've worked with CEOs and senior leaders both as a consultant and c-suite executive. These articles are culled from some of those experiences.