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Better Decision Making? Consider Adding Some Structure

Practical tips on how to identify a decision's complexity and add the right amount of structure for better outcomes.

It’s 2018.  I currently head up operations at a software company called Trello, and we need to decide what to do with our office space because our 10 year lease is about to expire.  Nobody on the team owns or is otherwise in charge of real estate questions - we’re a software company!  So who’s going to own not only the decision of where to move, but the whole project of selecting and building our new office?

This true story is an example of a big project with multi-year ramifications coming up on a team where the subject matter of the project doesn’t have a natural owner. The resulting questions are really basic and also really important:  Who is going to own this problem?  Who’s going to decide?

Frameworks Can Help, To A Point

At Hoop, we often hear about a few different tactics teams use to improve decision making.  A classic strategy is to try and adopt a decision making framework.  There are a bunch of options, including DACI, RACI, and RAPID.  

Most of these frameworks try to get teams to graft a set of predetermined roles onto their decision-making.  The DACI model, for example, distinguishes between:

  • 🚘 Driver-  The person who is responsible for making sure the decision gets made,  
  • ✅ Approver- The person who actually decides 
  • 🗣️ Contributor(s)- he person or people who contribute information to the decision and 
  • 🔊 Informed (the person or people who need to know the decision is happening and what the outcome is going to be).  (Check this post out from Atlassian that covers how to run an effective DACI process.)

Another tactic to improve decision making is to hire an actual person to be in charge of operational excellence.  This can be a COO, a Chief of Staff, or a strategy or business operations professional (depending on the level of seniority that the team is looking for or is otherwise able to hire).  At Trello, in the real estate decision I mentioned above, I ended up owning the real estate question as the head of operations.  If the shoe fits, I guess.

One way or another, adding structure to decision making can help.  And often the most helpful structure you can add is just to help figure out who is responsible for what when you make a decision.  Frameworks can assist by forcing you to to ask those questions at the outset, and an operational excellence professional can make sure that frameworks actually get followed.

On the other hand, frameworks can often be too heavy to adopt team-wide.  For example, in this critical analysis of the RACI framework, decision making experts August talk about how RACI makes the mistake of assuming that all decisions get made the same way, and that it can often be really hard to achieve consensus across all of your approvers and contributors in order to make any progress.

For a lot of decisions, creating a document based on a template and figuring out roles is itself too much of a lift.  Some suggest that it’s best to just ditch the tail end of decision making frameworks, and just to focus on who owns the decision and keep track of what gets decided

It Helps to Start Small

Making decisions according to a structure is a new skill for most teams.  And with any sort of new thing, it can help to start small and build up and out from there.  In working with teams on how they make decisions, we think about decisions on a complexity scale with these characteristics:

Decisions can be broken down in complexity from low stakes to high stakes

Teams need to reach for a low rung on the ladder of decision making complexity to begin.  That means starting with repeatable, lower stakes decisions.  As teams get more familiar with making decisions that follow a repeatable process, it gets easier to ladder up to more complex decisions.

One early Hoop user told us a story about deciding whether to buy a rug for the office using a structured process.  It seemed kind of silly at first, but then the team realized that by using a process, they opened up the decision to a wider group of stakeholders, including the team member that would ultimately be responsible for taking care of any rug purchased!  Even though the impact of this decision was on the lower side, soliciting feedback from a wider audience through a more transparent process became obviously beneficial.

We’ve seen teams start with decisions about purchasing (which CRM should we buy), offsite locations, timing questions (when should we ship something, or what a forecasted date should be, or when a piece of editorial content should go live), changes to operational procedures, and even hiring decisions.  The key is to start with something discreet that can be decided relatively quickly, and to go up in complexity from there.  

Over time, making decisions that are aided by structure will get easier for your team, and you’ll find yourself making decisions faster.  And by tracking the decisions you make against the outcomes that follow, you can become accountable to your results and learn as you go.  

Good luck, and happy decision-making!

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