Making good decisions and executing them well is fundamental to an organisation’s strategy and its performance. How organisations make and take decisions, and their whole decision process, is at the heart of this.
Over the years we have watched and helped teams make many decisions about their strategy and their organisations. They have often found it helpful when we have highlighted where they are in a decision making process and helped them discuss the decision itself.
As a result we have developed a way of talking about these management decisions and the process they take. We could call it the Excitant management decision process, but it is really Excitant’s view of how the more successful and effective executives and executive teams make decisions.
First two questions:
The Six frogs question
- There are Six frogs on a wall, two decide to jump off. How many are left on the wall?
Answer here. (Yes I am sorry :))
Decision making and decision taking
We talk about decision making and decision taking. Just pause for a moment and reflect, please. What is the difference between decision making, and decision taking?
We think there is a big difference. Here are how we see decision making different from decision taking.
Did you spot the distinction we are making. Important isn’t it. Isn’t it curious that we meld these two ideas when they are so distinct, and the difference is so important.
Are you starting to see how we break down the decision process?
The benefits of the decision process
This decision process has six steps. Awareness of these six steps is useful. The awareness helps you when you are working through a decision making and taking process.
- It helps you talk about where you are in a decision and recognise where others might also be in their decision process.
- It helps you communicate and understand where you are in a decision, individually and as a team. Have we committed yet, or are we still deciding?
- It is really useful when you need to know where decisions processes appear to be going wrong, and what to do about them.
- It help you explain to others how to make decision better, and make better decisions.
The Excitant Decision process: A tool to improve how you make decisions and how you talk about decisions.
Discussing the process of decision making (how you are making a decision) can be even more valuable than discussing the content of a decision (what we need to decide). This is a fundamental part of the “Quality of conversation” that we promote and knowing these six steps help teams articulate issues about how that process is working.
The Excitant Six step decision process
We find it really useful to recognise that any decision process has six steps or stages.
- Decision awareness: Are you aware of the situation and that a decision might be needed?
- Decision framing: How you frame or diagnose a situation or decision.
- Decision making: The construction of the decision and its analysis, which also involves thinking through its consequences
- Decision taking or commitment: Occurs at a moment in time when the commitment is made to move to an agreed action.
- Decision action: The action that follows the commitment and the observation of the effects of that action.
- Decision learning: Having made that decision, what did we learn? And what do we now do, or change?
Step 1: Decision Awareness
This is a point of realisation. Before too many steps can be made to start making a decision, it is necessary to bring any others involved to a similar state of awareness. You, collectively, need to realise that a decision is required.
Decision awareness often occurs when external events happen: when interest rates change on a loan, when a competitor announces a new product or wins a bid that you expected to win. It occurs when you get a large bill for your car repairs, when you realise a project that you thought was on track is actually off the rails, and when you decide you need to get ahead of the competition before they realise you are acting. These signals tell you a decision is needed.
Problems occur, when an individual in a team, becomes aware of a need, makes and then takes a decision and even perhaps moves to decision action. All this before others realise what they are doing and why. If one of the executive team believe that an external event has occurred and the strategy needs to be revisited or adjusted, but others do not, then there is only limited decision awareness. Decision awareness involves helping bring a whole team to realisation. The art is not to start jumping to decisions and actions too early, but to raise awareness that a decision, of some form, will be needed.
Stage 2: Decision framing or diagnosis
Have you ever sat in a meeting and realised that the people discussing it have diagnosed or framed a problem quite differently? For instance one sees the problem as an IT problem, another sees it as a skills issue, and a third sees it as an issue of money. In each case they have diagnosed or framed the problem quite differently.
When people diagnose a problem quite differently, every part of their solution is then dependent upon that frame. As a result the cultural solutions won’t address the underlying IT problem and the IT problem won’t address the funding. No decision is possible because they are all discussing quite different decisions.
We call this “The diagnosis trap”.
The catch is that people often quickly move from problem to the solution, making their diagnosis implicit. This occurs partly because of how we operate as humans. We have a natural ability to recognise situations and pattern match to address it (otherwise whenever we came across a traffic light when driving, we would have to work out what to do each time). The catch is we are thinking fast, not slow. We are implicitly diagnosing the problem and starting on the solution and action piece. Unfortunately, someone else recognised and diagnosed the problem completely differently. So they are framing the decisions and actions quite differently.
If this framing difference is not recognised quickly, then tensions build up and you potentially end up with intractable problems.
Another aspect of this is where a problem is misdiagnosed (or no diagnosis occurs at all). This type of error is called a category error. It often happens quite early in the decision making process, where an initial mis-diagnosis of the problem leads to a completely inappropriate solution.
This is why the problem framing or situation diagnosis stage is so important. If a team get this wrong, ALL subsequent stages of the decision process will be flawed.
Explicit awareness of decision framing is a really important step in the decision process. It is a stage where problems so often occur. It really helps to make this stage explicit and slow. It helps to make sure that people’s frames are aligned, or that you understand why they are different. Make the frame or diagnosis clear before you move on to decision making.
Step 3: Decision making
While decision framing is the step that often happens quickly and implicitly, decision making is the stage that people often take time over.
This is the most complex step, and the one most easily short cut, with unforeseen consequences later. This involves questions about the decision
- What problem are we solving?
- What decisions are required?
- What information we need?
- When is a decision needed?
- What assumptions are we making?
- What consequential decisions are there?
- What are the costs and potential benefits?
It involves question about who should be involved, at each stage?
- Who to involve?
- Who should be making and taking this decision? Is it us or others?
- Who will act on the decision?
It also involves questions about the way the decision is made, such the process of decision making, such as:
- How we decide?
- Where are other people in the decision making process?
- What are their preferences for decision making?
- What are their involvements in this process?
This is because things can go wrong when people have quite different decision making styles, or people are not appropriately involved. For instance, a strong reflector, needs time to think through things, whereas others are happier to make a judgement or leap to action quickly.
You also need dissent. Quick consensus often leads to bad decisions.
Another hazard is the level of decision. Often, a top level decision requires second level decisions to be made to unlock the top level. However the key is not to get lost in too much detail. Learn more about Level 1, 2 and 3 decisions.
Step 4: Decision Taking (Commitment)
This appears to be a simple step. It is the point at which “making” of the decision, the putting together, discussion and construction of the decision, stops and a choice is made. The decision is taken. By taken we mean that a choice is made from which a clear course of action will follow.
When a decision is about to be taken, it is important to make that clear and explicit.
Consensus agreement and understanding of the implications is important. However, sometimes a decision appears to be taken, but it is not taken by everyone. Sometimes it is helpful to try to take the decision to flush out concerns that people still have. One way is simply to state the decision, as “This is what we appear to be deciding…” and ask for reactions. Another way is to use a rich voting system such as Decision texture. This is useful because it enriches the available responses people have. Rather than having two simple options: agree or disagree, it provides a richer voting method. This provides four options:
- I agree,
- I disagree,
- I do not mind, and
- I do not have sufficient information.
Some Executive teams I have met allow time for silent reflection. This gives those reflectors in the room time to consider their views and stops those quicker thinkers and reactors in the room from dominating the conversation. This is a vastly underused, yet effective, technique. When were you last in a meeting where you were given time to think, that was separate to when others were talking?
It can also be useful to explore the consequences of agreeing “This means we will do this as a team….”. Sometimes it is helpful to explain what not taking a decision will mean.
All these techniques are designed to allow the team to explore the process of decision making as well as the content of the decision. Are we making the right decision, in the right way? At this point you are ensuring that all are ready to make the decision and that decision or choice is clear, so you can move on.
Step 5 Decision action
I sometimes summarise my work as helping a management team leave the board room all telling the same story. In a similar vein, decision action is about a management team consistently taking the actions that were identified and agreed during the making process.
If a team leave the room, apparently having made and taken a decision, but no-one does anything about it, there is no decision action. If only some act, but others don’t act, or others act inconsistently, then again that decision was not taken properly. We can be into the realms of decision assurance: what we do when there is tacit or malicious compliance and decisions are not taken seriously.
Decision action needs to be clear BEFORE the decision is taken. You need to be able to say, “when we take this decision it will mean we do this and this…”
Decision action is making it happen. Without action, there has been no decision.
Step 6: Decision Learning: About the content and decision process
Decision learning is not a separate step, but one that transcends the whole process. However, it is clearest when you follow the simple principle of, “This is what we decided and then did. So let is see what the consequences are?”
There are two aspects to learning
- About the content of the decision: Did we have the right content, consider the right options, frame it correctly, execute it well?
- About the decision process: Was it rushed, did we miss a step and not align people, did we have commitment.
Decision learning evaluates the quality of the actions, the quality of the decision taking and the decision making as a whole.
We have provided this page so our clients can easily find the six steps. This page is a point of reference for other articles about the decision making process. Of course you are free to use this process. All we ask is that you acknowledge the source as Excitant Ltd and this website.
And if you need help, simply give us a call.