165 – Decision making: How dialogue becomes action

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                                             960 words

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This last post in the series on decision making discusses the importance of design operating mechanisms that promote free flowing and productive dialogue to enable decision making. The setting in which dialogue occurs is as important as the dialogue itself.

 Ram Charan says this will be evident in the social operating mechanisms if people feel able to speak with ‘openness, candour, informality and closure’. He discusses each in turn:

  • Openness means that the outcome is not predetermined. There is a willingness to hear all sides in a safe atmosphere of ‘spirited discussion, learning and trust’.
  • Candour is willingness for people to speak the unspeakable, to expose unfulfilled commitments, to air the conflicts that undermine apparent consensus. People express their real opinions, not what they think team players are supposed to say. Candour helps eliminate the ‘silent lies and pocket vetos’ that occur when people agree to something that they have no intention of doing. It prevents reworking and revisiting decisions and reducing performance.
  • Informality encourages candour. Formality suppresses it. Informality also reduces defensiveness.
  • Closure imposes discipline. At the end of a meeting people know exactly what they are expected to do. It produces decisiveness by assigning accountability and deadlines to people in an open forum.

In local government there can be a notable lack of candour – speaking up can have consequences. Even when meetings are open and informal, people often leave them and have ‘meetings after the meeting’ when their real feelings and opinions are expressed. It is difficult to identify the reason for the reluctance to speak candidly.

There are stories in local government of people who have spoken up in forums to express ideas that are contrary to the prevailing view of the group, and this has resulted in a poor result at their next performance appraisal. Sometimes we don’t want to hear what we don’t want to hear. There is also a prevailing culture of not ‘rocking the boat’ in many councils, and being the dissenting voice can be frowned upon because the person is then seen to be ‘not getting along’. The predominant culture rejects disruption in favour of the settled and familiar.

Encouraging candour is a key challenge for local government to overcome indecision.

Charan believes that lack of closure, coupled with lack of sanctions, is the primary reason for a culture of indecision. He provides an example to illustrate this view:

A new CEO at a company wanted to develop a culture of collaboration, openness and decisiveness. The company was known for its bright, aggressive people. They had a reputation for competing with each other, at least as often as they pulled together. The culture was marked by the ‘lone heroes’. Individual operating units had little or no incentive to share information or cooperate. There were few sanctions for lone behaviour or failing to meet performance goals. Indecision was rife.

As one employee commented, “Meetings, meetings, and more meetings. People couldn’t make decisions, wouldn’t make decisions. They didn’t have to. No accountability.”

The CEO brought in six new social operating mechanisms, including the ‘performance call’. Once a month executives and managers would take part in a conference call where the past months financial results and critical activities were reviewed. Transparency and simultaneous information were the rules. It was not good enough for a manager to say that they were assessing, reviewing or analysing a problem. They needed to say what they were doing to act on the matter and how soon.

The performance call provided a safe environment for disagreement and a mechanism for airing and resolving the conflicts that are inevitable in a large organisation.

Charan doesn’t believe that leaders can or should attend every meeting to resolve conflicts and make decisions. Instead, they need to design operating mechanisms that promote free flowing and productive dialogue. By doing this, leaders will strongly influence how others perform their work and the culture of the organisation.

He sees organisational structure as necessary to separate functions and responsibilities to provide focus and get things done, but doing this divides the organisation and the social operating mechanisms are required to reintegrate it. They direct the various activities occurring within the structure of the organisation towards an objective.

Well designed operating mechanisms do this, but they still need to be supported by decisive dialogue and follow through. Charan believes that lack of feedback, in person or during the routine conduct of the social operating mechanisms, destroys discipline of execution and encourages indecision.

A culture of indecision changes when people are compelled to always be direct. Feedback should be candid, constructive, relentlessly focussed on behavioural performance, accountability and execution.

The idea that social operating mechanisms should be designed may be new to many local governments. It requires formalisation in thinking about them to recognise them, design them to ensure that they are genuinely a forum for open and honest discussion, and to focus on overcoming the functional divisions created by structure.

The obvious operating mechanisms may have visibility but not all operating mechanisms do and the connections between them are often haphazard or unplanned. This is an obvious place for improvement in local government decision making.

Charan provides a checklist for social operating mechanisms that could form the basis of a useful organisational diagnostic:

  1. How robust and effective are they?
  2. How well linked are they?
  3. Do they have the right people?
  4. Do they have the right frequency?
  5. Do they have a rhythm and operate consistently?
  6. Is follow through built in?
  7. Are rewards and sanctions linked to the outcomes of decisive dialogue?
  8. How productive is the dialogue within these mechanisms?
  9. Is the dialogue marked by openness, candour, informality and closure?

Try answering these questions to see how well your culture supports decisiveness.

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

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