By John Ager, KT Consultant
People make decisions when they need a change to promote their goals, both operational and strategic. Michael Mankins in his article, Stop Wasting Valuable Time, published in the HBR in 2004, and re-issued as part of the HBR LinkedIn discussion, “Most executive teams are terrible at managing their time,” suggests seven guidelines to improve senior management decision-making meetings: meetings that are consumed by low value rather than critical issues; meetings devoted to circular discussions rather than decision making; decisions based on limited information and not enough alternatives. Whether or not you are a senior manager, the same guidelines can help you and your teams to be more effective.
1. Adopt common decision-making processes and standards.
Per Mankins: “…companies with superior decision-making capabilities use a common language, methodology, and set of standards for making decisions. This lets them address many issues at once—often outside the team meetings. Individual decisions may not be made any faster in this way, but the team will be able to reach many more decisions each year.”
2. Deal with operations separately from strategy.
Effective meetings begin with an agreed purpose and a scope. We need to identify the theme of the meeting to set boundaries for the discussion. This allows the meeting sponsor to choose whom to invite, how much time to allocate, and the best approach to advance issue resolution. Holding a meeting without setting a clear theme is an invitation to distractions and scope creep.
3. Measure the real value of every item on the agenda.
Too often there are more items on a meeting agenda than can be effectively addressed. We need to use evidence and logic to set priority and establish the order for resolution. There are three elements to consider when setting priority: current impact (how big is the issue today?); future impact (how big will the issue be if not addressed?); and timeframe (when will resolution become too difficult, expensive, impossible, or meaningless?). A balanced consideration of these elements limits time spent on low-value issues, which can either be addressed at another time or delegated.
4. Get items off the agenda as quickly as possible.
Not all issues can be effectively resolved in a single discussion, particularly if needed information is not present. Deliberations in the absence of information are rarely effective. When we lack sufficient information to reach conclusions, we need to plan next steps—the work needed to advance resolution and to plan involvement—assign responsibility and schedule the work. Recognizing when additional information is needed supports better use of meeting time and more effective issue resolution.
5. Focus on decisions, not on discussions.
Focused discussions support effective decisions; using a common language and approach enables us to focus discussions. To ensure necessary information is the focus of the discussion, effective decision makers clarify purpose—agree on criteria; evaluate alternatives—compare performance of alternatives against the criteria; and assess risk—consider the potential risks of the best alternative. As discussed above, limit time spent discussing what you don’t know and close knowledge gaps between meetings.
6. Put real choices on the table.
Per Mankins, “management can’t make choices if it doesn’t have real alternatives;” he recommends having at least three. Before we can compare alternatives we need to generate alternatives—identify or create possible choices. Because this can be a creative exercise, generating alternatives should be separated from the analytic exercise of comparing alternatives, to allow for the free flow of new ideas.
7. Make decisions stick.
For our decisions to be effective in advancing strategic and operational goals, the organizational culture must support effective decision-making. People need sufficient time and resources to make and implement decisions. Organizations need to monitor the efficacy of decision-making and reward those whose decisions measurably advance operational and strategic goals.
Using a common language and process to support effective decision-making is a not new idea. But when people are confronted with complex issues, it is often a challenge to determine how to get started. Fortunately, those familiar with KT Clear Thinking processes have the answers on their cards and can follow a tried-and-true, structured process that supports efficient meetings and superior decisions.