Many times I’ve observed leadership teams trying to decide where to focus support and funding among several projects and opportunities. Leaders typically advocate for their favorite projects, explaining the benefits and projected return on investment. Rarely will that person describe the risks or provide a fair comparison to competing ideas. Recognizing that everyone has their pet projects, the team struggles to decide which to pursue.
The classic approach is to list the pros and cons of each project. But since the leaders tend to be biased, they’re reluctant to point out flaws in their favorites. And the leaders typically don’t know enough about others’ projects to objectively assess them.
In his 1990 book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge points out the inherent flaws when people advocate for an idea. He says that when we are in advocacy mode it is hard to be curious, objective, and open to others’ points of view. This is even more difficult when we’re under time pressures to decide. According to Senge, taking a posture of inquiry instead of advocacy leads to better decision-making.
Based on Senge’s insights and my own experience, I offer these tips for better decision-making:
- Don’t make decisions at the same meeting where people are promoting their ideas. It is difficult to be impartial after promoting your idea. Separate the meetings and be clear that the first meeting is for explaining the opportunities while decisions will be made in a follow-up meeting.
- Task two or three leaders to research the opportunities raised. When they’ve had time to study the project more deeply, their findings will be less biased, which can increase support.
- Ask team members to assume roles when evaluating the projects — such as CEO, board member, customer, or employee — and provide feedback from the perspective of that role. Using this approach, team members are often more willing to give critical feedback than they would be if they were representing themselves.
- Develop a matrix of what criteria should be used to evaluate the projects. Criteria can include things like importance to the organization’s goals, ease of implementation, potential market size, projected return on investment, and availability of internal resources to implement the project. After determining the criteria, the team should rank them according to importance. Evaluating each project against agreed-upon and weighted criteria provides more objectivity: the go/no-go decision is based on what is most important to the organization, not on the project leader’s influence.
- Determine how decisions will be made ahead of time. Is the senior leader the only one who gets to decide? If projects are put to a vote, will a simple majority rule or will consensus be required? Each approach has pros and cons, so be clear on the outcome you want before deciding how to decide.
- Set metrics to evaluate the success of the decision-making process. Most teams don’t review their approach once decisions are made, and by identifying what worked and what could have been done differently, you can improve the process. Build the learning into future decision-making so there’s continuous process improvement.
By establishing the rules of engagement and implementing an effective process, you can reduce conflict among team members and make better decisions.
One caveat: if your organization’s incentive system doesn’t reward team play, even the best process won’t work. Leaders who make decisions for the good of the company, not just their individual unit, should be recognized and compensated. People are not likely to make decisions that will hurt them financially.