Putting the Right People Behind the Wheel; How Decision Clarity Drives Innovation, Supports Social Responsibility and Optimizes long term Value
Non-profit leaders often make implicit and explicit assumptions about the decision-making practices established and maintained in their organizations. These assumptions, some conscious and some un-conscious create inefficiency, reduce innovation and blind these leaders to the effective utilization of their human capital resources. These assumptions also occasionally lead to the destruction of trust stakeholders have in their institution. Trust and commitment to mission are the main currencies upon which these organizations function. Once lost, the road back from that event is quite daunting.
This hack discusses a workplace innovation called Decision Clarity. It is principled in that it actively encourages all members of an organization to advocate for appropriate decision-making responsibility. Decision Clarity promotes the concept that all members of the team have the talent and desire to contribute to their organization’s most pressing decisions and they will do so if the organizations they serve only offer them that chance. Decision-making insights are not the sole province of the senior team. Decision Clarity is also patient in that it encourages organizations to look to the long term to build the decision-making capabilities of their team. Finally, Decision Clarity is social because it encourages all members of the team to bring their talent and creativity to self selected teams that are best equipped to make the decisions before their organization. Decision Clarity insures that the right people, representing the most appropriate diverse views are in the room when the most important decisions have to be made. Decision Clarity encourages greater involvement and commitment and reduces fear.
On November 18, 2011 University of California, Davis Police pepper sprayed a peaceful gathering of students who were protesting tuition and fee hikes. This unprovoked act caused worldwide condemnation. While the University apologized for this police action and commissioned a report on the incident, the damage incurred by the institution was done and will last for years. Both students and faculty are calling for the Chancellor’s and the Police Chief’s removal and an ill-conceived and poorly executed decision have unintentionally created great harm to this prestigious institution.
In March 2012 a commission chaired by retired California State Supreme Court Justice, Cruz Reynoso, published their findings on the incident. Section one of their report entitled,“ Deficiencies in the Decision-Making Process and Substantive Mistakes at the Administrative Level”, details the many decision-making assumptions and mistakes made by the institution and its leaders including:
- Stifling debate during the decision-making process
- Ignoring data that conflicted with the conventional wisdom espoused by some of the less influential participants
- Narrowing the decision-making process to a limited number of people
- Not clarifying the decision-making responsibilities of the police and their civilian administrators
- Failing to provide a common understanding of the decisions being considered and how they would be implemented
- Maintaining an ineffective, consensus based decision-making process
- Allowing fear of failure to cloud their operational judgment
The actions taken that day in this very public setting brought disgrace to the University. Mark Yudoff, President of the University of California stated, “even a cursory reading of the report confirms what we have known from the start: Friday, November 18 was a bad day for the UC Davis community and for the entire UC system. We can and must do better. Free speech, including non-violent protest, is part of the DNA of this university and it must be protected with vigilance.“
If the UC Davis leadership team had taken a few moments that day to inventory and prioritize the decisions before them allowed stakeholders to advocate for appropriate decision-making responsibility and then proactively communicated those decisions to all of the affected parties, this crisis might have been averted. To those who say, “ who has time to do this when were in the midst of a crisis”, we would reply that this process would have taken far less time to implement then the clean-up of this decision-making debacle.
While the UC Davis leadership failed miserably in this decision-making process, we know that similar and less public mistakes in effective decision-making are rampant both in the social and private sectors. Our experience in the social sector has shown us that most organizations practice an overly centralized form of decision-making and these efforts increase staff attrition, stifle leadership development, reduce innovation and create inconsistent results.
In August 2010, Commongood Careers, a nationally recognized social sector search firm and Empowering Work Practices launched a survey to better understand the attitudes of non-profit staff to decision-making practices in their organizations. A total of 218 non-profit employees responded to the survey. We found that decision-making confusion appears to exist at all levels in many organizations and this uncertainty negatively impacts both personal performance as well as organizational efficiency. Some of the key findings from the survey are as follows:
“Are you sometimes confused as to what decisions you can make?” 78% said “yes” and 22% said “no”. Even managers,(defined in the survey as a person with the title of either Manager, Director, Vice President, COO or CEO) with 6 or more years of experience answered this question as follows: “yes” 71% and “no” 29%.
“Does your confusion about the decisions you can make create operational inefficiency in your organization?”
91% said “yes” and 9% said “no”.
“Does your confusion about the decisions you can make create inefficiency in your personal performance?”
89% said “yes” and 11% said “no”.
“Are you gaining the decision-making you need to advance your career?”
38% said “yes” and 62% said “no”.
We know that social sector organizations will never have sufficient financial resources and yet they often waste their human capital through the maintenance of inefficient and narrowly managed decision-making practices.
A key component of building sustainable capitalism is the full utilization of our human capital in our social sector decision-making practices. When individuals join social sector organizations they do so with a passionate commitment to the mission and the client’s they serve. Usually this mission is connected to empowering the clients of the organization. These clients often learn to self- advocate, to navigate through difficult situations and they are encouraged to persevere. These are not skills we teach or endorse for most social sector employees. Also, social sector employees are often hesitant to take on more responsibility when their organizations are often unwilling to reprioritize their efforts.
As a result decision-making in many social sector organizations is needlessly concentrated in the hands of a small cadre of senior staff and this reality creates confusion, wastes resources and doesn’t often result in better outcomes
This needless concentration of power in the hands of too few creates on-going challenges for scale. When non-profits have vacancies in senior positions they invariably go outside their organizations because they have not developed a competent bench of decision-makers. This strategy is fraught with challenges as these transplanted individuals seek, very often unsuccessfully, to acculturate to the requirements of their new entity. Staff members who have been passed over for promotion because they are seen as “implementers” and not “decision-makers” often depart for other opportunities increasing employee churn and further hampering efforts to scale. The ongoing repetition of this flawed system encourages dissension even in the most committed work force and does not promote the staff to be active stewards of their resources or values. Instead they fall into a disempowered state exhaustion without the real ability to meaningfully and fully contribute to their organizations.
The Decision Clarity Practice encourages the planned and structured engagement of all employees in the decision-making processes of their organizations. The Decision Clarity Practice utilizes EWP’s DACI2 model, which creates a safe structure for employee advocacy. We do not talk about “decision-making rights’ in our work. Rather we believe that we encourage employees to advocate for decision-making responsibilities that are ultimately conferred on them with the expressed permission of their organization. Our core assumptions for this work are:
1) Decisions should be made by the individual who has the most direct relationship to and knowledge of the issue
2) Entrusting decision-making responsibility to the relevant employee will empower them and develop increased competency
3) Creating a circle of self advocacy and oversight will encourage staff who are closest to the decisions to make them with confidence this act will likely reinforce
The Decision Clarity training has four key components:
In this section of our work, staff learns they can inventory the decisions before them. Social sector organizations often function in a whirlwind and compulsively sway from one decision to the next. The people affected by or making these decisions often don’t take the time to take stock of all of the decisions confronting them; they just lurch from one to another. In this section of the work the staff list the complex and strategic decisions that are affecting their operations. This phase of the work requires the participants to abandon a “zero-sum” approach to decision-making and promote the notion that making good decisions requires the inclusion of diverse voices.
In the next section of our engagement we ask the staff to prioritize these decisions. We often find that staffs in these organizations have grave difficulty prioritizing their activities and are not focused on the decisions that can offer significant leverage to the organization. In an effort to take control of some part of their organizational lives they focus on decisions that are less essential. This part of the practice successfully highlights the decisions that are crucial to the organization and acknowledges that not all initiatives and their resulting decisions can be pushed at the same time. We need to fiercely attack the important decisions that face our organizations while re-prioritizing those that are less important and patiently encouraging our decision-makers to make well thought out quality decisions rather than bouncing from issue to issue.
Advocating for Decision-Making Responsibility
This is where the fun begins. In this section participants learn to advocate for one of five key roles in the DACI2 model: Decision-Maker, Driver, Advisor, Contributor or Informed. The Decision Clarity Practice differs from all other decision-making models in that we actively encourage and train people to advocate for appropriate decision-making responsibility that is commensurate with their experience and position. We are driving decision-making responsibility down to its most appropriate level providing all staff with greater clarity and a shared language on decision-making.
The above roles and behaviors are clearly defined. Decision-makers can only make decisions after they have weighed the issues before them and consulted with all members that want to contribute. Advisors are in place to coach the decision-makers. Those that need to be informed on a timely basis have been designated in advance. This process creates efficiency and certainty in organizations that often swing from one crisis to the next. This work also creates a principled culture where the individuals most connected to a particular decision are afforded the respect and support to tackle the decisions that affect their work. The decisions and the staff that have advocated for responsibility are each recorded on a grid.
Communicating for Clarity
Once the decisions and the staff grids are finished they are published for a one-week comment period. During this time other individuals can advocate to be placed on or removed from a grid. Once this period has elapsed the Executive Team will review, make comments on and ultimately approve the grids. This work is once again published. This method provides transparency and avoids the common organizational practice of making decisions and failing to communicate those actions. This phase of Decision Clarity reinforces a principled culture.
Once the practice is complete follow-up coaching is implemented to reinforce the lessons learned in the training.
In the summer and fall of 2011, San Francisco based social sector organization GreatSchools worked with Empowering Work Practices to implement the Decision Clarity Practice. As a result of this work GreatSchools greatly expanded their pool of decision-makers to 21 individuals who are now responsible for 71 complex and strategic decisions.
Bill Jackson, CEO of Great Schools recently reviewed the decision-making progress his organization has made since the introduction of the Decision Clarity concepts to his organization. He asserted that Decision Clarity has improved decision-making at Greatschools in the following ways:
1) The GreatSchools staff, particularly the more senior leaders have become more skilled at advocating for and obtaining decision-making authority. The GreatSchools organization has given increased decision-making responsibility to more people for the better their decision-making culture.
2) The overall team has increased their focus and as CEO he has benefitted from knowing who has the responsibility for the decisions before the organization.
3) The GreatSchools staff now routinely asks each other, “Who is responsible for this decision.” They are using the definitions of the DACI2 Decision Clarity practice.
4) Bill advanced that a key benefit of the work has been that “when a new issue comes up I’m much more likely to ask: “Who should make this decision?” than begin to discuss the issue itself. That has taken practice- as the founder and an entrepreneuiarally-minded leader, my first instinct is to dive into a topic and share my thinking. Decision Clarity has helped me know that it is sometimes more important to clarify who really is best suited to make the decisions before us. Once we’ve identified the real decision-maker, then my words are more likely to carry the appropriate weight.
Bill closed by stating, " At GreatSchools we've benefitted a great deal from the Decision Clarity process. Our work with EWP has shown us that we have not always been clear about which staff members should make which decisions and this has elongated our decision-making processes.
It was clear from our Decision Clarity work that junior staff and middle managers would like to have more ability to make decisions. However, even senior staff are benefitting from this work. Not long ago I met with a member of my team. I wanted to discuss with her my concerns about her approach to a particular challenge. After laying out my case she told me in a direct and respectful way that she disagreed with my assessment, provided me with ample evidence to support her perspective and insisted that her approach would be the most appropriate. After reflecting on our discussion I realized she actually had articulated the right approach. I also realized that before the Decision Clarity work, she would never have advocated for this decision-making responsibility.
EWP has helped us figure out how to achieve improvements in our decision-making so that we can unlock the full potential of our staff. We are a much stronger organization as a result."
Take the plunge. Inventory the decisions confronting you, or your team, or your organization. What are they? Write them down. Then look at them with an unjaundiced eye and decide which of these are the most crucial for you, your team or the organization? Decide which priorities you are willing to delay in order to achieve action on your prioritized set?
Then think through who is best positioned because of their knowledge and experience to make this decision, who should contribute to that decision and who needs to specifically inform that the decision has been made? It’s probably not the people who currently think they fulfill those roles. And that’s another point, decision-making is so convoluted in most organizations that there might be significant confusion as to who actually is responsible for making a particular decision. Decision-making that is convoluted and concentrated are hardly indicators of effective organizations. The continuation of this process wastes time and money and erodes the creativity and operational ability out of our social sector organizations. Maintaining the status quo of our current decision-making practices does not support our efforts to make social sector organizations either principled, patient or social. The status quo reinforces fear and underutilizes the significant talent resident in the employees of the social sector.
Diedra Barber, Melissa Jones, Felicia Martin and Jessica Robinson