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3 Ways To Ease The Pain Of Slow And Frustrating Decision Making

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar July 19, 2017

Much of the frustration in today's workplaces is linked to the way decisions are made. At the top of the organization people with the most decision making power (high up in the organization) are the farthest away from the actual work that’s being done. At the same time, people at the bottom of the organization often don't have the authority to make decisions on their own.

The result? Ill-informed, slow and terrible decisions that are made in a process that frustrates everyone involved. Luckily, there are a number of ways to relieve the pain.

A lot can be learned from Bucket List pioneer David Marquet and the story of how he transformed a US Navy submarine. From being a very traditional command-and-control environment where only the leaders called the shots, he changed the submarine's way of working into a place where everyone was making decisions.

From centralized to distributed decision making

Captain David Marquet was used to giving orders. In the high-stress environment of the USS Santa Fe, a nuclear-powered submarine, it was crucial his men did their job well. But the ship was dogged by poor morale, poor performance and the worst retention in the fleet.

One day, Marquet unknowingly gave an impossible order, and his crew tried to follow it anyway. He realized he was leading a culture of followers, and they were all in danger unless they fundamentally changed the way they did things.

Marquet took matters into his own hands and pushed for leadership at every level. Before long, his crew became fully engaged and the Santa Fe skyrocketed from worst to first in the fleet. No matter your business or position, you can apply Marquet's approach to create a workplace where everyone takes responsibility for their actions, people are healthier and happier - and everyone is a leader." (From the cover of David Marquet's book 'Turn the Ship Around! A true story of turning followers into leaders')

David makes it his primary focus to divest control and to distribute his decision making authority to his crew as much as possible. But a submarine, and the Navy in general, has a built-in structure whereby information is channeled up the chain of command to decision makers. Just like many of the traditional hierarchical organizations. David showed however, with a few relatively simple practices, that it's possible to deconstruct decision making authority and to push authority down the chain of command.

Move authority to where the information is

David: "Don't move information to authority, move authority to the information. Eventually we turned everything upside down. Instead of one captain giving orders to 134 men, we would have 135 independent, energetic, emotionally committed and engaged men thinking about what we needed to do and ways to do it right. This process turned them into active leaders as opposed to passive followers."

Step 1. Change your language

The first step is through the power of words. Changing your language is a powerful first step to distribute decision making. David: "The key to your team becoming more proactive rests in the language subordinates and superiors use. Here is a short list of disempowered phrases that passive followers use:

  • Request permission to...
  • I would like to...
  • What should I do about...
  • Do you think we should...
  • Could we...

Avoid such phrases and replace them by those that imply empowerment. Here is a short list of empowered phrases that active doers use:

  • I intend to...
  • I plan on...
  • I will...
  • We will..."

Using these different phrases can start a change in the decision making culture of an organization. Discipline in constantly using them is crucial for success.

Step 2. Distribute decision-making authority by practice

The next step is to extend the concept and to really distribute decision-making authority down the chain of command as much as possible. Search, with the leadership or with the teams, for the organizational practices and procedures that hold people back from making decisions. Search for control mechanisms that keep the command-and-control culture in place.

When the control mechanisms have been made visible, it's a matter of delegating control or decision making authority as much as is comfortable; then add a pinch more. To change the way the organization controls decisions in an enduring, personal way, you can follow the following steps (we slightly adapted David's process):

"When I think about delegating this decision, I worry that.."

  • As a facilitator, identify in the organization's policy documents where decision-making authority is specified. (You can do this ahead of time if you want.)
  • Gather the leader(s) and his/her team(s) in one room and explain what is the purpose of this session.
  • Send the team(s) out for a break.
  • Let the leader(s) identify decisions that are candidates for being pushed to the next lower level in the organization.
  • Let the leader(s) write all these candidate-decisions on a big wall.
  • Ask every leader in the group to complete the following sentence on a post-it: "When I think about delegating this decision, I worry that..".
  • Let the leader(s) stick the post-its on the wall next to the candidate-decisions.
  • Send the leader(s) on a long break.
  • In the meantime let the team(s) enter the room and allow them to comment with post-its to the wall by following the sentence: "You should not be worried. We feel comfortable in making this decision, because...".
  • Last, invite the leader(s) back into the room, sort and rank the post-its and begin to discuss them together.

David: "Worries fall typically into two broad categories. People are worried that the next level down won't make good decisions, either because they lack the technical competence about the subject or because they don't understand what the organization is trying to accomplish. Both of these can be resolved.

We discovered that distributing control by itself wasn't enough. Be honest about what you intend to achieve and communicate that all the time, at every level. As that happened, it put requirements on the new decision makers to have a higher level of technical knowledge and clearer sense of organizational purpose than ever before. That's because decisions are made against a set of criteria that includes what's technically appropriate and what aligns with the organization's interest."

Step 3. Push decision making authority down through proper training

David began to look into their training programs to be able to push decision making authority even more down the chain of command.

David: "It was a key enabler that allowed us to pass decision-making authority to lower and lower levels on Santa Fe. Want to have a training program that employees will want to go to? Here's how it should work:

  • The purpose of training is to increase technical competence.
  • The result of increased technical competence is the ability to delegate increased decision making to the employees.
  • Increased decision making among your employees will naturally result in greater engagement, motivation, and initiative.

You will end up with significantly higher productivity, morale, and effectiveness. Divest control and increase competence."

To train employees in taking even more control over decisions making authority, you can follow the following steps (we slightly adapted David's process):

  • As a facilitator gather the leader(s) and his/her team(s) in one room and explain what is the purpose of this session.
  • Hand out a bunch of post-its and markers
  • Let them start with the following sentence completion: "Our company would be more effective if [level] management/team could make decisions about [subject]."
  • Let them stick the post-its to the wall, and send them on break.
  • As a facilitator (potentially together with leadership) down-select to a couple of subjects .
  • Invite everybody back into the room.
  • For the down-selected subjects ask this question: "What, technically, do the people at this level of management need to know in order to make that decision?"
  • Again, answer with post-its, post them, and let them go on break.
  • As a facilitator construct a relevant list of topics for training.
  • Invite everybody back into the room and let them directly connect the training topics to increased decision making authority and control.

David: "When you set up the training, don't forget to communicate this thought process to the group. That way they'll know why they are going to attend training and want to attend, knowing it's their path to greater decision-making authority."

Try and fail, but don't fail to try

David Marquet's approach has led to a long list of successes: retention increased, number of promotions skyrocketed, engagement went up, and tactical effectiveness increased. The submarine went from worst to best performing in the fleet. The practical steps he took can be a way for teams, departments or even entire organizations to distribute authority and relieve the pain of frustrating decision making in organizations. It won't be easy and it will take deliberate practice, but doing it will be well worth the effort.

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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