“The first rule in decision-making is that one does not make a decision unless there is disagreement,” wrote Peter Drucker in The Effective Executive. And yet, in our desire to balance consensus, many of our decision-making practices actively avoid it, preferring to compromise on effectiveness to keep everyone happy.
Imagine disagreeing with your doctor on the need to have surgery and remove your appendix, so you decide to compromise and remove half of it. Or consider a disagreement with your spouse over whether you should wear brown or black shoes, so you agree to compromise and wear one of each. Have you achieved the best outcome in either case?
In each case, we’ve created the worst possible outcome. And while these examples are extreme, we see similar decisions happen every day within our organizations. Decisions made by committees end up watered-down and ineffectual. Decisions made that seek to please everyone end up accomplishing the exact opposite.
We do this because it’s easy. We do it because we’re more worried about keeping people happy and preserving the status quo than making the best decision. As Chris Voss wrote in Never Split the Difference,
“We don’t compromise because it’s right; we compromise because it’s easy and because it saves face.”
In today’s world of constant change, our ability to quickly make decisions and fully commit to a new course of action has never been more critical. It’s the slow, indecisive company that’s quickly left behind as their competitors adapt into changing environments.
Each time we compromise, it dilutes the effectiveness of our actions. Each time we default into seeking unanimous consent, it reduces agility and biases us towards the status quo.
Effective decision-making relies on guarding against this trap. And if you find yourself falling into it, it’s usually due to one of four main reasons.
You Don’t Have Clear Priorities
“To determine what is a fact requires first a decision on the criteria of relevance, especially on the appropriate measurement. This is the hinge of the effective decision, and usually its most controversial aspect.” – Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive
Most companies advertise a list of values. They’ll say that they prioritize integrity, excellence, respect, etc.
But who doesn’t value these things? I’ve yet to see a company advertise their desire for underhandedness in order to make a quick buck.
More importantly, which ones matter most? In a conflict, should you choose technical excellence or meeting delivery needs? When a hard choice comes up, is your loyalty to your customer base, your employees, or your shareholders?
Never trust a company that simultaneously promises the highest quality, lowest cost, and quickest delivery. And never trust a leader who promises that you’ll never have to make a trade-off across a laundry list of values.
Values without prioritization are rarely helpful. And saying that everything is equally important is just a coward’s way of saying that nothing is.
Without priorities and principles, it’s easy to fall into the consensus trap. When we can’t tell what’s right, it makes sense to simply poll the majority and go with the popular vote. As Seneca wisely put it,
“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”
People shouldn’t have to guess at an organization’s priorities. A clear understanding of the organization’s values and strategic direction contextualizes decision-making throughout the organization. And helps differentiate which alternatives align to it – and which don’t.
You Have More Decision-Makers than Decisions
“A camel is a horse designed by a committee.” – English proverb
A while ago, two of my peers and I walked into our manager’s office to present a recommendation. Midway through our pitch, he stopped us and asked, “wait, who owns this decision?”
All three of us raised our hands. He then said, “Stop, leave, and come back in here when only one of you owns this decision.”
He knew that decisions made by a committee will inherently have a certain level of compromise. The act of trying to balance different interpretations and perspectives will dilute responsibility from someone standing up and making the tough call.
This isn’t to say that decision-making should occur in a vacuum. It’s critical to get inputs across a diverse range of perspectives. But when it comes down to making the final call, that responsibility needs to reside with one person.
One practice is to simply list out all of your decisions and the associated decision-makers. Any area that has more decision-makers than decisions is a set-up for diluted effectiveness. Which also may explain our constant frustration with the speed and effectiveness of Congressional actions.
Assigning sole responsibility for a decision encourages people to take full ownership over it. It’s one thing to assess a situation and be part of a team consensus. It’s an entirely different experience to own the final call. When people have sole responsibility, they’re much more invested in driving the best solution.
Ask yourself, who owns this decision? Unless you can point to one person, you’ve never had anyone really responsible. It may seem stupidly simple. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that if it’s stupid, and it works, it isn’t stupid.
You’re Not Encouraging Dissent
“The understanding that underlies the right decision grows out of the clash and conflict of divergent opinions and out of the serious consideration of competing alternatives.” – Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive
Imagine this: you’re sitting in a meeting, about to move forward with a decision. But first, someone suggests that the group plays devil’s advocate – assigning one member to make a plea for the dissenting opinion.
Now ask yourself, what’s most likely to happen?
Do we really believe that someone who was happy to roll along with the decision a minute ago is going to make an authentic argument against it?
No. In most cases, all devil’s advocate gets you is a false sense of confidence. People play along, but their arguments are superficial and rarely challenge the current course. In the end, confirmation bias and groupthink holds strong.
Instead, we need to actively seek out people who hold these dissenting views. If we want an authentic discussion, we need authentic perspectives. If we want real conflict, then we need conflicting views.
It’s the persistence that comes with authentically held views that forces the rest of the team to mindfully consider their argument. Only when the rest of the group must reason through counterpoints in the face of a strong advocate will they demonstrate the depth and creativity needed to develop the best answer.
Most importantly, we need to welcome dissent as part of the process. The goal in decision-making is not to develop the most well-liked idea, but the best idea. As people develop and suggest dissenting ideas, we need to see these as the gifts that they are, adding depth and resiliency to our decisions. As Ed Catmull wrote,
“If we start with the attitude that different viewpoints are additive rather than competitive, we become more effective because our ideas or decisions are honed and tempered by that discourse.”
We typically define consensus as one where everyone agrees on the decision. But in most organizations, this is near impossible. Even when we have the same facts, and we’re aligned to the same mission, we’ll have different views and opinions.
The goal, then, is not one of full consensus, but sufficient consensus. This means that everyone has had a chance to get their opinions and ideas out in the open for authentic discussion, especially if they’re dissenting. Everyone doesn’t need to agree that the decision is the best option. They just need to agree that they can live with it, and most importantly, commit to its implementation.
Andy Grove described it well in High Output Management,
“I feel very strongly that any outcome that includes a commitment to action is acceptable. Complex issues do not lend themselves easily to universal agreement.”
People Aren’t Ready to Stand Up and Defend the Tough Calls
“Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.” – Peter Drucker
We all want to be successful. But it’s important that we get there in the right way. While it’s often easy to shortcut our long-term priorities for a short-term gain, this quickly becomes an unsustainable strategy.
There’s a simple self-test on this. Imagine how you’d feel if your decision was displayed on the front page of the NY Times. If you’re okay with that level of visibility, and you’re happy to defend it, then it’s likely that you’re making a good long-term decision. But if it makes you uncomfortable, chances are that you’re straying from the right choice.
Regardless of the method, when we know that we’ll need to stand up and defend a decision, we’re much more likely to make sure that it’s the most effective solution.
So why not make this part of the process?
If there’s a framework where people need to document their decisions, explain their rationale, and cite their alternatives considered, they’re much more likely to ensure it meets their standards. If people know they’ll need to defend their decision, they’re more likely to make sure it’s defensible.
The other benefit is that it provides transparency into the decision-making process. When people can understand the logic behind a decision, they’re much more likely to get on board with the implementation. And when they understand the rationale, they’re able to leverage it for their own decisions going forward.
All of which encourages people to keep confronting difficult decisions. And avoid settling for consensus.
Develop a Strong Decision-Making Process
“Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Good decision-making isn’t necessarily about making the best choice, but leveraging a process that offers the best chance for long-term success. It’s about using the information available, developing trust across stakeholders, and creating an environment where people will support the outcome. As Eric Schmidt wrote in Trillion Dollar Coach, citing the great Bill Campbell,
“Getting to the right answer is important, but having the whole team get there is just as important.”
In this way, it’s important to recognize the difference between good decisions and good decision-making. Good decision-making rarely happens by accident. In a complex world, there’s too many variables, too many stakeholders, too many people ready to resist the outcome, to hope everything aligns by accident.
Without a process, without intentionally driving towards gaining the right inputs, assigning responsibility, encouraging debate and transparency, and enforcing accountability, it’s easy to fall into the compromise trap.
The alternative is to take deliberate action. And relentlessly pursue the most effective decision. As Herbert Bayard Swope, the first recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, put it,
“I can’t give you a sure-fire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time.”