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One of the components of good decision-making is to recognise the level of decision you are dealing with, and particularly levels of sub-decisions, within a decision.   In this article we are going to explore ‘Level 2 decisions’ that sit within a top-level decision.

An example will illustrate level 1 and level 2 decisions. One client was an industry research body that was managing the collaborative research in their industry. The board realised that they wanted the research they shared to take a much longer term view of their industry (25 years) and how it might be affected. In effect to look backwards from potential futures, rather than forward from today’s problems. This, in itself, was a no-brainer decision. We had already identified 10-12 potential major topic areas, the real question was how to make this happen? Let is mark the decision, “We must have a proportion of our research that is much more strategic and long-term”.  This is what we can call ‘the level 1 decision’.

However, before anyone could walk out of the board meeting that decided this (so the decision is properly made and properly taken ) the board identified four consequential decisions that needed resolving:
1) What proportion of the research budget should be devoted to these more strategic topic areas? eg should it be 5%, 20% or 50%?
2) How would they clarify the problems and questions they wanted answering in each topic area, so that the research would be effective?
3) How would they fund and agree these research projects, given the annual process that was used for the more tactical research projects and the next cycle being 9 months away?
4) What would they do to start this process off?

Without these decisions being addressed, the first decision would become an empty decision: agreed ‘in principle’ but without any coherent action.

Identifying level 2 decisions

It is helpful to think of each of consequential decisions these as a ‘Level 2 decision’. Level 2 decisions are an immediate consequence of the top-level decision: they have to be resolved before anyone can commit meaningfully to the top-level, level 1, decision. If any of these level 2 decisions are left unaddressed or unclear, then the level 1 decision is un-made, or incompletely made. The consequence is that there may be tacit commitment and the decision won’t be taken properly. Poorly taken decisions mean nothing is likely to happen to change the mix of projects. There will be no coherent action to implement the level 1 decision.

So it is vital that these level 2 decisions are:
1) Identified clearly
2) Discussed and addressed
3) Agreed.
Then, and only then, does the level 1 decision have ant credibility as a “taken decision”.

Beware of level 3 decisions

Alongside the danger of NOT addressing the level 2 decisions is getting lost in the level 3 decisions. Now it is easy to drift into level 3 decisions whilst the level 2 ones are being discussed. An example would be “Who should run the first projects?”, “How much should we spend on one project vs another?”, or “When do we want these projects finished by?”. These questions would obviously be useful to answer, but an answer is not a necessary pre-cursor to making the decision about whether to do strategic projects or not. They should not stop, not cloud, the primary decision being made. They are (at the moment) noise. Noise that should be marked to be addressed later, but at this stage. noise. Who runs the particular projects can be decided later.

Level 2 decisions are influenced by how the decision is framed

Be aware that level 2 decisions are often determined by the way the problem is framed by the individuals.  For instance, in this case it was framed as a problem of the funding process, the way projects were chosen and the types of questions that the proposers of projects were asking.   For instance, if the project selection process was only 6 weeks away, starting these early might not have been a decision that was necessary.  If one of the management team was particularly concerned that the underlying problem was the ability of the project proposers and managers to thing 25 years ahead, then the choice of people for those first few projects might escalate to a level 2 decision.  Awareness of how members of the management team are framing the problem helps you identify the importance and level of the decisions that need to accompany the main decision.

Decision chairing skills

So one of the key skills in managing the decision-making conversation is to identify the set of level 2 decisions that naturally accompany the level 1 decision. Also to recognise when the decision-making conversation drifts into level 3 detail.

A second decision chairing skill is to ensure you have a complete enough set of these second level decisions. Consequential decisions that need to be made now, and are sufficient to get the larger decision taken well.

A vital third skill is listening to how decisions are being diagnosed and framed.

I have found that by coaching a management team to mark out parts of the conversation as levels of decision, in itself will help their conversation along.  In effect it helps teams to say to one another, “I recognise that as a part of this decision, but perhaps not one we need to worry about or address now”.  This way the whole group can agree whether aspects of the consequential decisions are necessary to be also made and taken at the same time, or can be left until later.

If you would like help improving the decision-making and taking conversations in your organisation, just get in touch or give us a call.