I received an email from our senior pastor at church who, in his closing, asked, “Did they train you in seminary how to deal with a pandemic? I didn’t get that training.”
Do I forge ahead and hold church services, do I cancel them, or do I try and find a third alternative? How do I make the “right” decision? Sound like anything you might be facing?
In the face of the pandemic sweeping the nation and the world, leaders in every kind of organization face these kinds of questions daily – and the one thing they have in common is a vast majority have never received the “training” or the “answer book” for what to do when you have to make these kinds of decisions.
Bad news – there is no “answer book.” Good news – you get to experiment – and there are some “guide posts.”
“When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” – Yogi Berra
This is a perfect case study in strategic leadership and decision making. Remember that strategic issues are those that are filled with VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), have no “textbook” answer and are usually in the form of a question (my understanding of strategic leadership). “Should we hold services?” is an example of a strategic question. But we don’t have to flip a coin or roll the dice or look for a sign.
In my faith, I begin with prayer, seek God’s guidance, and listen to the Holy Spirit’s nudging. I also have to listen to those voices that God puts in my life to speak his will to us. But that’s where I start. You may see things differently.
Stage of Development Matters
Another good starting point is to be aware of our stage of development. If we’re “Reactive/Socialized Mind,” we most likely are trying to make decisions that will please others or will protect our “persona.” If we’re (usually unknowingly) stuck in this stage, we are most likely trying to control the situation by being perfectionists, driven, ambitious, and autocratic (my way or the highway) and produce an outcome that we assess that it’s up to us, individually, to accomplish; protect our identity by being distant, critical, and arrogant, believing that any solution we didn’t come up with could possibly work; or complying with the wishes of everyone else by being conservative, pleasing others, wanting to do things to belong to the bigger group, or being passive and putting off the decision until “later.”
It’s essential to be able to make strategic decisions from a “Creative/Self-Authoring Mind” (or more). As we mature in the stages of development, we begin to realize that it’s not up to us solely to make decisions, but to have a team of leaders, working together, committed to making decisions in support of achieving the organization’s vision. Collaborating with others in making this difficult decision is an example of that kind of thinking and approach to a strategic issue.
No “Right” Answers – Just Experiments
Strategic leaders identify what big questions are a priority for the organization they lead (“How will we navigate the next three months?), then put a team of talented, committed people together in order to begin to engage in experiments to see what might work. There is no “right answer” to a strategic question. That kind of thinking is reflective of a Reactive/Socialized Mind. There are just experiments we can try to see what works and what doesn’t. It’s the process of experimentation that gets us through the VUCA.
Because everyone sees the world differently, no matter what decision you make, you’ll have some who will see it differently. Depending on their stage of development, this will take the form of criticism and “ontological arrogance,” where they are trying to control their lives and how they make sense of the world. While we have to hear their concerns and criticisms (“ontological humility”) ultimately, we have to make a decision. Making decisions is one of the key processes of any organization – and often overlooked.
Here’s one way to think about the decision-making process.
It’s amazing how many times I’ve witnessed or been part of leadership teams who dive into decisio-making without really defining what it is that They’re trying to decide. This can lead to confusion and catastrophe, since each person is bringing his or her own conceptualization without coming to a clear consensus.
This first step is pretty straightforward. It consists of:
- Defining and clarifying the problem or issue
- Deciding how much time we have to make the decision
- How important it is to our organization
- What level of thought is required (Bloom’s Taxonomy: knowledge comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation)
- The level of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity that we’re able to identify
The second step consists of defining which method we’ll be using.
- There are two type of decision making:
- Command – I make the decision myself with no outside advice
- Consult – I ask for others’ views, letting them know that I need to see their viewpoint but may not act on it, but ultimately, I’ll make the decision. If you use this one, it’s important to let people know you value their input but may not do what they recommend; they’re sharing how they see it and it’s up to you to ultimately discern the way forward.
- Voting – the easiest, fastest way to get a decision; it’s also the most problematic in that it produces winners and losers
- Consensus – the most difficult, time-consuming way to get a decision, but the most effective because its goal is that everyone will leave the meeting, committed to enacting the decision; it doesn’t mean that we all agree with everything, but that we can support it.
Clarifying who decides and which method of decision-making we’ll use reduces confusion.
The third step allows us to get down to work. Here is where we
- Decide who we need to be on the decision-making team and what their charter is. If it’s an individual decision, it’s pretty simple, but when it’s a group decision, making sure we have the right number of people, representative of diverse views and expertise is an essential component that can lead to effective decsision
- Once convened, we have to spend some time defining the ideal outcome – what it would look like if we were successful
- Having team members with the courage to share conflicting points-of-view is a great antidote for “group think,” where everyone nods in agreement with the most senior leader or the most influential member.
- During the conversations of the team or the deliberations of the individual, grounding assessments establishes a way to guard against walking into a trap that can influence decision making. “A lot of people don’t like the direction we’re going” is an example of an ungrounded assessment. How many people don’t like it? And who are they? “My co-worker and I don’t like the direction we’re going” is a grounded assessment.
- Make the decision
The final step is often overlooked, rushed, or just sloppily done.
- We start by comparing the decision to the ideal outcome we’ve defined earlier. If we’ve missed the mark, we keep working at refining the outcome
- The individual or the team then creates a common message for delivery throughout the organizationg. Patrick Lencioni defines a great process he calls “Cascading Communication” in his book, The Advantage.
- Too often, people make decisions in a “fire and forget” mindset. “We made the decision; let’s get on to what’s next,” and never go back and see if the decision was a good one or if it worked. Coming back in a few months to see if the decision was a good one is an important last step in telling us if it was the right decision or not
My Two Rules for Leaders Making Decisions
Over the years, I’ve learned that many leaders agonize over their decisions, second-guessing themselves and wondering if they did the right thing. That’s led to my developing these two rules for decision making:
- In every situation, we make the best decision we’re capable of making. Strategic decisions never have enough information or data to present clear, right-or-wrong decisions; you usually have about 10% of the information you need. And you can never anticipate the unintended consequences of your decision.
- If we made the wrong decision, we’ll make another, better one.
I’m sure that, given the environment we’re working in, that there will be more strategic questions that each one of us will need to frame as decisions present themselves. Keep making them but be more intentional about the process you use. Your decisions will be the best decisions you can make, but you don’t have to make them by yourself and you don’t have to “fly blind.”
I’m sure there are ways you could improve this and let me know what I’ve left out. I’d love to hear from you to help me see what I currently don’t.
© Geoff Davis, 3/20/20