Decision Making

whose policy is it, anyway?

Had a great conversation the other night with a friend about making organizations flatter and removing the barriers to people doing great work. It’s easy for me to get pretty excited and idealistic about the shift I see happening in companies and the future of work. I was brought down to earth with the memory of a silly process that stayed in place because it existed but no one knew who was responsible for it.

Several years ago a CFO complained about a form used by his accounting department to track training expenses. It was intended to make sure that employees weren’t going on some sort of training spending spree (does that happen?) by requiring several levels of approval before they were able to attend the training.

The reality was NO ONE filled it out in advance. They only completed it when accounting started calling well after the fact and insisting on it to justify the expenses. Plus, it applied equally to all “training” from attending a lunch at a professional organization to a multiple day program across the country. And, many of the people who had to fill it out had company credit cards and discretionary funds – I suspect they simply got around completing the form by not calling it “training”.

So here was the CFO griping that he had to complete a form that he thought was ridiculous and stupid. Although it was a training form, it never passed through anyone responsible for training so it was a form that only his department used. Think about that again. His department’s form. He thinks it’s stupid. He could kill it on the spot. But rather than risk eliminating it (who would protest?), he complained and let it continue. I’ve no doubt he is still complaining about it today.

Stories like that make me think the organization of the future is just a little bit further away than I want to imagine.

What thinks you?

what do you mean it was a great meeting?

Compelling. Rejuvenating. Energizing. How often do people use those words to describe a daylong meeting focused on updating annual goals? How often do participants come away saying it was their best meeting all their years at the company? How often do they send thank you notes and stop the organizers in the hallway to say how fantastic it was?

Never? Exactly. A snowball’s chance as they say.

This week there was apparently a cold front blowing over the river Styx. Snowmen and downhill skiing in Hades and all that.

The company I work for is very big on goal setting and every June there is a meeting of roughly the top 20% leaders to look at internal and external factors that might require one’s goals to be updated/revised/changed. It’s an important event because it recognizes that the world is changing quickly and we need to adjust as needed. This year, the organizers took a big chance and shook things up.

Rather than talking about goals, goal setting, etc. the event happened like this: After a 30 minute kickoff, 15 teams of five people were given sealed envelopes with instructions for 8-10 out of 12 or so possible activities and turned loose. They got back together five hours later to debrief their insights from the activities and wrap things up. The activities ranged from looking at how competitors were using social media (in an industry that is very shy about such things), checking out internal learning resources available, going to the mall and seeing how a certain retailer is trying to rebrand itself, considering rapidly changing industries such as music and DVDs and how it might relate to our own, etc. They even decorated their own coffee mugs using markers (ala Pinterest) with how they were feeling about the near future. It all sounds campy and probably shouldn’t have worked. Amazingly (and thankfully) it did.

Why? I’m still not sure, but I have a few thoughts:

1. It was different and unexpected. People were planning on a long, dull day so the novelty was energizing and people appreciated the organizers taking chances with the meeting.

2. The teams were very cross functional across department, location, and level so participants got to know people they rarely work with or even speak to. There’s a lot of power and benefit in kicking at the silos.

3. People, even conservative people in conservative companies in conservative industries, want permission to play, explore, think, and discuss. They really don’t get a chance to do that.

4. The day was framed as being all about questions and possibilities. Participants were told up front that there were no answers to be given only exploration and discussion.

5. There was no right or wrong, just open ended questions. There was no looking at what the company needed to do better, no leading questions or judgment, just a lot of thinking about what was going on in a lot of different fields. The company has smart leaders and they were left to draw their own conclusions for moving forward.

6. When things didn’t work like the organizers had planned, they were very up front and shared it as a learning point for all the participants to benefit from.

7. The organizers didn’t apologize, hesitate, or doubt. Their words and attitudes conveyed that it was going to be a different, provocative, and fun day and the participants followed that lead.


In there is my own personal biggest takeaway: people want permission to think and play. Daily work, organizational politics and personalities, self-inflicted expectations, and fear of being different conspire to get in the way. Events that remove those constraints and create a safe zone for playing with ideas enable something pretty special to emerge.

fair warning

“To be normal is the ideal aim of the unsuccessful.” ~ Carl Jung

“Anybody who courts the mainstream deserves everything they get.” ~ Hugh MacLeod

flashback friday: good enough isn’t, but great enough is

[This was originally posted on October 14, 2011]

I’m a big believer in the concept that good enough isn’t. Hitting the bare minimums isn’t success, it’s temporary survival. Sadly, most companies seem to struggle to reach even the level of good enough. They shoot for good enough customer service, good enough prices, good enough hiring policies, good enough management development, good enough training, etc. The problem is that, at the very theoretical best, it will only be good enough. In the real world, a bunch of attempts at good enough added together tends to equal not good enough. Aiming for “good enough” seems to get us to “doesn’t completely suck”.

In fact, I’d like to propose a real world rating scale. Feel free to use it for performance appraisals, evaluating processes, due diligence for investments, whatever you need a rating scale for. Here it is:

  1. Sucks
  2. Doesn’t completely suck
  3. Good enough
  4. Great enough
  5. Phenomenal, but exceeds the point of diminishing returns
On this scale, there is only one rating worth hitting: “Great enough.” Although “Phenomenal” sounds like a good thing, there comes a point in any quality improvement where the costs/effort/resources required for additional improvement become an exponential curve while improvements move along a very flat linear curve. In other words, you’re spending tons of resources for ounces of improvement. This is perfectionism getting in it’s own way.
But, “great enough”… Getting to great enough requires a completely different set of questions, decisions, actions than it takes to be merely good enough. Consider this: getting your life to good enough is easy. You’re probably already there. But what would having a great enough life look like and what would it take to get it there?
How freakin’ cool would it be to work for a company that focused on doing everything great enough? How incredible would it be to know that all your efforts at work were consistently great enough? Who wouldn’t sing the praises of a company that only hired people who were great enough?
I’ll give you tonight to mull it over. Tomorrow morning, what are you going to do to start kicking butt and creating great enough relationships with your friends and family? What are you going to do to create great enough health? To start getting your finances into great enough shape? Come Monday morning, what are you going to do to take your team to great enough? If you’re in HR, what are you going to do to create great enough selection and onboarding processes? To help the managers you serve to become great enough leaders? To create a great enough company culture?
Great enough. Love it!


assumptions made // reality unknown

Ugh. Saturday morning and the shiny screwhead caught my eye. The screw was buried deep in the shoulder of the tire. Fortunately, it was still holding air, but it would probably be a slow leak.

I pulled the wheel and took it in to the tire shop. They confirmed my fears – unrepairable; too close to the sidewall. They didn’t have the brand/size in stock so they’d have to order one and it would arrive Monday. Double ugh. Their price was reasonable, but it’s a performance tire and reasonable and cheap are two different things. Triple ugh.

Sunday morning and I’m out on a run. In a moment of oxygen depleted clarity I realize: I made some assumptions, but never verified them. The tire shop took me at my word that the tire needed to be replaced.  The tire was unrepairable, but only if it needed to be repaired. There is a screw in the tread, but I don’t know how far in it goes. The tire itself could be undamaged. The tire was holding air, which a punctured tire will sometimes do. So will an unpunctured tire.

I made some assumptions, but never verified reality.

How often does this show up at work?

We hear a credible sounding rumor and make decisions about it as though it were fact.

We ballpark some numbers until we can get better information but then forget to go back and adjust.

We treat our favorite solution to a problem as though it is the only solution, forgetting that there may be other (and better) ways of going about it.

We fear the worst, assume the worst, and react the worst… before anything has even happened.

We speculate something to someone, they pass it along to someone who a passes it along again until our original rumor is mentioned to us as fact. In our minds, our speculation was confirmed, when the reality was that someone just told us the rumor that we’d started.

Someone tells us how difficult or unreasonable a customer is so we go in with either a defeatist attitude or a chip on our shoulders.

An idea is shot down because, “We tried that before and it didn’t work.” (Yes, tried it halfheartedly by someone with less skill under completely different circumstances.)

We don’t take on something we’re really excited about because we have ourselves convinced that we’ll fail.

We’ll rarely have perfect information, so assumptions can be useful. Make the assumptions, but check the reality.

change keeps on changing

“…the core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people and behavior change happens… mostly by speaking to people’s feelings.” ~ John Kotter

We want to believe that us humans are rational beings governed by reason and logic. We really, really want to believe this, despite our entire life experience. As near as I can tell, the strongest thing we can say is that we have the capacity to be rational, but we use nearly all of that capacity to explain, rationalize, and justify the decisions we’ve made with feeling and emotion.

This concept has been studied and demonstrated for years. Advertisers know it and use it to their advantage. They create change by hooking us on feelings of fun, status, sex appeal, freedom, control, power, hope, fear, etc.

Rationally, we know that too much of anything is bad for us. So, if we made rational decisions, none of us would suffer from too much food, alcohol, smoking, etc. Emotion drives us to action, intellect justifies it and makes it reasonable.

There are exactly 1.7 bagillion books, articles, and classes on change and change management. Companies are in turmoil as they try to keep up with the world and the best ones are using change to their advantage to continually evolve.

The problem is that we fall for the myth of rationality and think that big change = analyze à think à change. We look at options, analyze the pros and cons of each, decide, and move forward. When we focus on speaking to emotions it becomes:  see à feel à change. We see or visualize the outcome, feel what it will be like once we have made the change, and then take action.

The problem is that both are an oversimplification and we are driven by both. Some people are more analytical, some are driven more by instinct and emotion, but we all have a deep need to understand the reason behind the change AND emotionally connect to the benefits of the change.

We need both to create the motivation for change in ourselves, in our teams, in our companies. So, what can we do to better address our intellectual and emotional needs around change?

Your take?


simplify, then add lightness

I’m a big fan of good policy and process because it allows for quick, consistent, and better decision making. It says that when this event happens, we respond this way. No agonizing, no reinventing the wheel, no he said/she saids or playing mom off of dad. Policy defines how we as a company have decided – in advance – to deal with certain situations. Process defines how we will do certain tasks and ultimately supports and makes it easy to adhere to policies.

Great policies and processes enable decisions to be made as quickly and as low in the organization as possible. Decisions made on the ground are always more relevant to the immediate situation than decisions made even one or two levels up.

The problems start when we adhere to policy for the sake of policy, rather than to help make better decisions. Policy should guide thinking and decision making, not replace it. Once we let policy and process replace judgment and thinking, then we must exponentially expand the number of policies and procedures to cover every possible situation that could possibly come up. When new situations arise, even one-time anomalies, another policy must be added. The more specific the policies, the more policies we must have. Soon, we’re crushed with bureaucracy and we’re safe because we’re sticking with policy even when it’s the wrong thing to do.

Unfortunately, thriving in this world requires dealing with new situations. Little to no innovation is possible in bureaucracy. The tighter the policies, the less judgment allowed, the higher in the organization decisions must be made and the less we are able to innovate, adapt, and invent.

Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus Cars and legendary race car engineer, famously once said that the secret to building a winning race car is to “simplify, then add lightness.” Simple parts and systems are less likely to break. Reducing weight makes a car quicker, better handling, more responsive, and reduces the amount of strain and wear on critical components. He understood cars, but might have well been talking about organizations.

The internet is full of people babbling on about the need for companies to be more innovative, react more quickly, and adapt faster. But it misses a crucial point: nimble companies react quickly, ponderous companies don’t. You can’t be driving along in a city bus and expect it to stop, accelerate, and turn on a dime just because you want it to. Mass creates momentum. Yet, we smugly suggest that bus size companies should behave like race cars.

Solution? Simplify, then add lightness. Good policy and process provides just enough framework to make decisions consistent with the strategic direction of the company. And not a gram more.

Four prime examples:

1. The US Constitution. This document is a miracle of simplicity. The few Americans who have actually bothered to read it know that it is amazingly stripped down and simple. In fact, it’s only about 7,400 words long (call it about 16 pages). Knowing that they couldn’t accurately imagine every possible situation that would need to be accounted for, the authors simply created an enduring framework that would enable adaptation. It was so simple and brief that they had to immediately amend it to establish and protect basic rights.

2. Nordstrom. Nordstrom’s focus is customer service and they want nothing to get in the way of employees providing phenomenal service. Their entire employee handbook is reported as listing only ONE rule: “Use good judgment in all situations.” And then there is brief mention to feel free to ask the department or store manager or HR any question at any time.

3. Apple Computers. Steve Jobs genius was not leadership: it was an unrelenting focus to make things as simple as humanly possible and then make them even simpler. How many steps does it take to get to any song on an iPod? (Hint: you won’t come even close to using all the fingers on one hand when you’re counting.)

4. Amazon. 1-click ordering. Enough said.

Um, how big’s your policy manual again? How many pages does the dress code really need to be? How many steps are truly necessary to for a customer to return an item? How easy is it for the customer to give you their money?

it’s not about you, it’s about the decision

Ever experienced (or maybe created) a situation where someone refused to yield on a decision? They made their preference known and refused to back off – even when it clearly went against the group or good sense?

So often, we’re not arguing for what would be best. We’re not hearing the other views, taking in new information, and reassessing our solutions. Instead, we’re sticking to out guns. No matter what.

And what a waste of time that is.

I was recently involved with a committee that needed to assess several applicants to determine who would receive an award. Each applicant was evaluated on several criteria and assigned ratings. One person collected the ratings from each member of the committee and compiled them into a spreadsheet, comparing the rating in a few different ways. The numbers showed there was a clear division between the top tier and the next level. The top group was certain to be granted the award, but there were a few the committee would need to debate. These were applicants that received mixed ratings across the committee.

On almost a whim, the committee members’ names had been removed from the spreadsheet. Although each could see all of the ratings given for each candidate, no committee member knew who had given which ratings.

Interestingly, with the names removed, the candidates became more important than the raters. No one dug in their heels or got defensive. Those who felt strongly one way or the other brought up their concerns – but it was clear it was about the candidate, not saving face or defending their ratings. Those who didn’t have strong feelings could quietly go along with the group without having to justify their scoring. Debate and discussion moved along quicker than ever, egos stayed in check, real issues surfaced, non-issues stayed away. All in all, a quicker and more effective method than in previous years.

This suggests to me that there are real benefits in any decision making when we can find ways to keep it about the decision. That’s what a secret ballot is all about. I’ve been harping on the idea that people don’t want the best decision, they want their decision to be best. Well, this is one way to remove the “their” part of the equation so that the group can focus on the best decision.

Although, this was for a community award, I’m very interested in using this approach with interviewing and selecting candidates. Or any group decision. Any thoughts?

quick review: The Strategy Book

“The Strategy Book” by Max McKeown – brilliant and practical. I posted a slightly different version of this over on amazon a few weeks back, but it’s worth repeating.

I had been following the author for a while on Twitter (@maxmckeown) and I ended up getting a copy of the book through a promotion. Once it arrived, I moved it ahead of the long list of books in waiting. Less than 30 pages in I was recommending it to others and I ordered several of the author’s books for our corporate library.

The Strategy Book

This is one of those books where, if I’d highlighted all the ideas that grabbed me, I’d have ended up with practically all of the book in yellow. The author is concise and down to earth, yet has a very engaging and conversational style. He does a great job of condensing big ideas into simple sentences.

Barely finished, I immediately moved his book “The Truth About Innovation” to the top of my reading stack. And then “Unshrink” (and my department is now reading it as part of our ongoing development). Next up, “Adaptability”.

Definitely my new favorite author. Track it down, read it, enjoy. Really, really great stuff.

More info: