Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Bad Case of Indecision


Leaders at large seem to be plagued by chronic indecisiveness, and as they stall on making important decisions, they effectively paralyze the rest of their organizations.  In fact, 53% of employees feel there is too much red tape in their organizations, according to Discovery Surveys.  

The most common for slow decision making include:

  • Too many priorities.  Projects continually move to "next quarter".
  • A perceived role/title of authority without any real power.
  • Velocity of business today and rapidly changing organizational goals.
  • An out of balance focus on "what" needs to be done over the "how", creating a gap in the knowledge and understanding required to make wise decisions.
  • Multiple bosses and competing agendas.
  • Lack of leadership resourcefulness, patience, and transparency in soliciting help and gathering information.
  • Fear of making a mistake or rocking the boat.
  • Chronic procrastination.
  • Hope that the situation will go away or resolve itself.
Regardless of the reason, leadership indecision is a destructive virus, gradually weakening organizations from the inside out.  Consider the following story that demonstrates the broad range impact of waffling.

In one large, national company there has been a change in executive leadership for positive reasons - the organization is growing and expanding into new markets and needed an experienced leader to set strategies and guide them through previously uncharted territory. 

The executive came aboard, conducted a thorough assessment, and then directed the functional leaders to do three things:  1. Restructure (without lost headcount),   2. Realign resources, 3. Create strategic plans that would lay out the framework for taking their respective departments to the next level of performance. The new company banner was accountability, accountability, accountability. 

A strong start, indeed; which makes what has happened since all the more baffling.  Half a year has passed and no visible changes have occurred.  Yet there has been no shortage of management meetings (or the cost per hour in salaries that come with it) or a lack of discussion, a lack of bench strength, or a lack of resources.  Committees have been formed, surveys have been conducted, and clear answers have emerged from employees at all levels.

If not manpower, time, or resources then what would prevent a clear mandate like this from coming to fruition?  The source of the stagnation most often stems from the department heads concern over ruffling feathers, breaking traditions and a general fear of rocking the boat. 

Now, let's be clear.  We are the first to preach the importance of leaders being tuned in to the needs and emotional climate of their workforce.  However, there is nothing advantageous or employee-centric about making your staff tread water while they sit and wait for final changes they have been told are coming. 

Management by consensus sounds great in theory.  We all know that employees who are involved in the decision making process are likely to be more engaged.  But, if management by consensus is overused it can take too long and create contagious indecisiveness. 

"Indecision is debilitating; it feeds upon itself; it is, one might almost say, habit-forming. Not only that, but it is contagious; it transmits itself to others." - H.A. Hopf

Much like boarding people on a plane without a destination, leaders risk losing employee's interest, motivation, and patience.  What earns you more employee engagement - to make decisions slowly, by popular vote or to lead with vision making swift changes that are thought out and clearly explained? 

While leaders doddle, trying to figure out a way to gently sneak the company into change, employees long for some good old fashioned, give-it-to-me-straight direction.  

Most managers overlook the destructive impact delays and flip-flopping have on employee performance.  By leaving them in no man's land (not operating in the past and not fully working in the future), they create a performance patchwork of people.  Some behave in the old way, some do things their own way, and some unsure of what to do, do nothing at all.  A sure fire recipe for inconsistency, quality erosion, and falling morale. 

To make matters worse, when decisions are finally made, they are often done at the wrong level to create real impact.  In a study by author and organizational psychologist Bruce Katcher, 63% of employees say that decisions in their company are usually not made at the appropriate level.

Admittedly, some leaders suffer alongside their people.  Innovative solutions at middle management get smothered because budgets haven't been approved. Financial incentive is out of alignment with the company's new direction as revised compensation plans sit waiting for approval. Customer opportunities are lost because sales support is off pace with market demands.   

So how can organizations get off the dime and start making some real progress?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Set hard deadlines for publicly announcing strategic direction and hold people accountable to keeping them.
  • Stagger authority, especially if the new direction is complex, involving many layers of people to produce something. Give latitude to begin the process instead of keeping it all top secret until the entire plan is perfect.  Plan for small wins along the way.
  • Don't be afraid of hurt feelings.  It is impossible to make everyone happy at the same time.  Figure out who your most valuable employees are and who your most valuable customers are and make decisions based on what is best for them.
  • Be clear on your Purpose, Process, and Performance Measurement.  What is the potential value gained or lost based on this decision? Has my process taken into consideration all parties affected?  Have I sought impartial expertise?  What value or momentum will be lost if I wait?  How will I measure the success of this decision?
  • Timing is everything.  By postponing proactive changes you force your organization to be a fast follower instead of an industry pace setter.
  • Investigate delays.  Push past the standard "these things take time" and get involved in the construction stages.  Leaders must not stop at visioning and delegating.
  • Surround yourself with people who can make their own decisions and accept accountability for the results.
  • Educate front line and middle management on strategic decision making.  Given solid information and an understanding of the stakes, they will do the right thing for the business.  Trust them.
Effective leaders know when and how to orchestrate smart decision making and often rely on their front line to make big plays and execute serious decisions.  Employees want a leader who will lead, not a good survey taker.

As Theodore Roosevelt so wisely put it, "in any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing." 

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