161- Decision making: Dealing with indecisiveness.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                                  1100 words

dilbert indecision

This is the fifth post in a series. Some organisations, like some people, just can’t make up their minds. Ram Charan believes that leaders can eradicate indecision by changing the tone and content of the everyday conversations occurring throughout the organisation. This is difficult in local government where CEO’s and top management are often insecure and sensitive to challenge.

Breaking a culture of indecision will require leaders to challenge assumptions, share information, and bring disagreement to the surface. Charan offers the following example to highlight the signs of indecision:

A presentation is made to a meeting about a proposed project. There is silence until the CEO speaks and asks questions that show they have taken a position on the matter and made up their mind. Then others speak up to agree with the CEO, keeping their comments positive.

It appears that everyone supports the project. But, some are concerned and keeping their reservations to themselves. Over the next few months the project is slowly strangled to death.

It is not clear who killed it but it is clear that the true sentiment in the room after the presentation was the opposite of the apparent consensus.

The key issue is that the true sentiment is the opposite of the apparent consensus. Charan says that ‘silent lies and lack of closure’ can lead to a false decision that is undone by unspoken factors and inaction.

How often does this happen in local government? The CEO has become a powerful figure in councils since the change to fixed term contracts for them and all senior officers. It is appropriate that their views should influence the organisation, and they are ultimately accountable for the decisions made and action taken by the organisation.

But are they establishing effective systems to enable good decisions to be made? Are they leading through their behaviour in a way that cuts through indecision? Have they actually applied themselves to understanding the big strategic or critical operational decisions that need to be made, the risks for them from poor decisions or indecision, and consciously designed a way for the organisation to make decision? Or, are they just continuing the traditional local government decision making processes?

Some officers in local government have a ‘six week’ rule. If you are asked to do something that doesn’t seem to fit in with current strategy, policy or plans and will be resource intensive for no foreseeable gain, just wait and if you aren’t asked about it within the next six weeks, forget about it. It is a test of the intent of the person making the request and suggests managers are ‘second guessing’ the executive members. They don’t have confidence in the executive’s decision making or any commitment to implementing decisions they haven’t been part of making.

Charan has identified common factors in examples of indecision:

  • A ‘misfire’ in the personal interactions that are supposed to produce results. The people responsible for reaching a decision and acting on it have failed to connect and engage with each other.
  • Intimidated by the group hierarchy and constrained by formality and lack of trust, people go through the motions without conviction or commitment.
  • Lacking emotional commitment, the people who must implement the decision don’t act decisively.

It is leaders create a culture of indecisiveness and they can also break it through their dialogue in interactions if they challenge assumptions, share or don’t share information, and bring disagreement to the surface or let it be ignored.

Charan believes that ‘dialogue is the basic unit of work of the organisation’. This is a view that is in conflict with time poor executives in local government, who are attempting to be efficient in the use of their time dealing with managers. When ‘one on one’ meetings are cancelled or truncated because of competing time pressures it prevents effective dialogue.

Charan also believes that the tone and content of dialogue shapes people’s behaviours and beliefs (i.e. the organisational culture) faster and more permanently than ‘any reward system, structural change or vision statement’. The quality of dialogue determines how people gather and process information, how they make decisions, how they feel about one another and about the outcome of decisions. These matters need to be discussed.

Breaking a culture of indecision requires a leader who can engender intellectual honesty and trust in the interactions between people in the organisation. They need to model open, decisive dialogue in each encounter. The key mechanism for leaders to do this is through mechanisms that Charan calls the ‘social operating mechanisms’ of the organisation. This includes executive meetings, budget and strategy reviews, performance reviews, and all situations where people in the organisation meet to ‘do business’.

To set the tone they must have open, honest and decisive dialogue at their centre. When tightly linked and consistently practiced, Charan believes these mechanisms establish clear lines of accountability for reaching and implementing decisions. Feedback and follow through support honest dialogue when leaders provide honest feedback to reward high achievers, coach under-performers, and ‘redirect’ the behaviours of people blocking progress.

The emphasis on ‘social operating mechanisms’ to eliminate indecision creates a connection with the importance of decision making processes (i.e. RAPID) and need for integration of strategy and decision making (i.e. continuous decision-oriented planning). In the absence of processes to assist decision making and link decisions to strategy, local governments will struggle to make enough decisions in a timely way and keep up with the changing expectations of citizens and customers or pressures arising from the external authorising environment.

Conflicts and indecision will ensue and performance will wind down as executive meetings become longer and longer as more decisions are called before the Executive, and the decision quality declines when the Executive make decisions under time pressure that impact on parts of the organisation that they have insufficient detailed knowledge.

Charan provides advice on establishing decisive dialogues, robust operating mechanisms and linking them to follow through and feedback. He says decisive dialogue is easier to recognise that to define. He describes some of the hallmarks:

  • It encourages incisiveness and creativity.
  • It brings coherence to seemingly fragmented and unrelated ideas.
  • It allows tensions to surface and be resolved by airing every viewpoint.
  • It is a process of intellectual enquiry, rather than advocacy – a search for truth, not a contest.
  • The outcome seems right because people have helped shape it. As a result they are emotionally committed, energised and ready to act.

Creating a culture of decisiveness will take courage and commitment. It is not complicated, just a little risky for the leaders. The next post discusses social operating mechanisms where people feel able to speak with ‘openness, candour, informality and closure’.

Charan, Ram 2006. ‘Conquering a culture of indecision’ Harvard Business Review, January.