Escaping the Decision-Making Quagmire (Part 1)

This is part one of a three-part series on how organizations can make faster, more effective decisions. In this post, we’ll talk about balancing the scale between top-down and bottom-up decisions. In part two, we’ll discuss making decisions as a group. And in part three, I’ll walk you through how I facilitate effective group decision-making.

When former Navy captain David Marquet was transferred to the Santa Fe, a nuclear-powered submarine, he faced a perplexing challenge. He had been trained in the traditional top-down order giving style of the military, and the boat’s crew had, of course, been trained to follow those orders. That traditional process had worked on his last ship, but it wasn’t working here.

Problems quickly arose when Marquet — who was unfamiliar with the Santa Fe — gave an order that was technically impossible for the crew to follow. They tried anyway, and the results made Marquet realize he needed to come up with a new way of making command decisions that took into account both his goals and his crew’s knowledge — before it became a matter of life or death.

Whether on a nuclear-powered submarine or in the office, decisions at an organization get made on a sliding scale of responsibility. And if leaders aren’t careful, they can get trapped in the quagmire of leaning too much to one end of that scale.

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On one end, the leader passes down decisions to the worker. On the other end, the worker at the bottom of the chain of command is responsible for making decisions in the moment. And in the middle, multiple team members come together to debate and decide as a group.

I’m going to discuss group decision-making in part two of this series, so for now, let’s look at decision-making on a scale between top-down and bottom-up.

Leadership: At the leadership level, the boss says, “Here’s what we’re going to do,” and the worker is expected to comply. For example, a sales manager creates a program all the sales reps will follow.

  • Pro: Decisions are made quickly because group input isn’t required
  • Con: The leader isn’t as close to the job being done and may not have all the facts
  • Con: The worker doesn’t have much autonomy and may begin to disengage

Worker: Here at the bottom level, the worker makes frequent, lower-risk decisions in the moment. The sales rep now has the agency to offer discounts or free freight without interrupting the momentum of a sales call to consult their manager.

  • Pro: Decisions are made quickly in the moment
  • Pro: The worker enjoys autonomy and feels more engaged
  • Con: The worker doesn’t always have the bigger picture of the business

Balancing the two with input and intent

Some leaders try to solve the problem of not having all the facts by gathering input from the worker before making their final decision. That slows down the process, but it does help the worker feel more included and makes the decision stronger. In the end, however, that decision is still being handed down from the top.

On the Santa Fe, Marquet flipped that model on its head. In his book, Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders, he details how he switched to “Intent-Based Leadership.”

Rather than micromanaging with a series of precise course changes, Maquet would order, “Take us to X location.” His crew would then respond with how they intended to carry out that order. Because Maquet focused on transparency of information, as well as giving them a clear goal, his crew had more context than most Navy crews and were able to make better-informed decisions on their own.

As a result of this shift, the morale on the Santa Fe improved, and the ship went from having one of the worst retention rates in the fleet to one of the best.

When I’m working with an organization to redesign their teams and structure, my goal is generally to push decision making to the edges of the organization using a similar model. A model where the leader’s decisions act as guard rails within which the worker has the freedom — and the transparency of information — to fly free and do their best work.

Of course, there are still decisions that fall into the middle. Those infrequent, high-risk decisions where we need good information fidelity and input from the entire team.

Those types of decisions are best made as a team. And, as you’ll see in the next post, learning how to make effective decisions as a group is just as life-or-death critical for your organization.

Bob Gower
Co-Founder of The Alignment Company

PS: I’ve held a variety of leadership positions and advisory roles over the years including design director of a major newspaper and consultant to leaders of organizations (multinationals, local nonprofits and everything in between). 

These days I coach and advise leadership teams to get everyone aligned and pulling in the same direction. 

I also work as a dedicated in-house facilitator and fixer for organizations going through deep transformation.  

People usually find me when they have high stakes projects that need to go well. It may be that their team feels out of sync, decision making is (needlessly) difficult, or that there’s confusion about who owns what and why. 

My work helps improve culture and operations — aligning teams on all levels so they can be their best. 

If you think a conversation might be helpful, you should reach out.

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