The Fearless Thinkers Podcast | Season 3, Episode 1

Decoding decision making:

Navigating organizational and individual realities

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About the show

The Fearless Thinkers podcast, hosted by Rick Cheatham and Masami Cookson, personalizes BTS’s perspective on the people side of strategy.

Fearless Thinkers is produced by Masami Cookson, Nicole Hernandez, and Aron Towner.

Special thanks to Joe Holeman, Chris Goodnow, Meghan McGrath, and Roanne Neuwirth for their invaluable help.

Decoding decision making: Navigating organizational and individual realities

Effective decision making has the power to accelerate growth and drive your organization forward, achieving key milestones and outcomes faster, while ineffective decision making can paralyze organizational progress altogether. In this episode of Fearless Thinkers, Abbey Bonham, Principal, and Libby MacKenzie, Director, sit down with Rick Cheatham, CMO, to unpack what decision making looks like in organizations today, the impact of AI, and the key moves you can make to level-up decision making for yourself and your teams.

Rick: I’m going to dive right in because I think everybody’s probably excited to learn more about what decision making is from your perspective and why is it so important to be focused on right now? 

Libby: So, in a nutshell, the way that we define decision making within organizations is that effective decision making includes setting an intent, identifying, and weighing potential options, and then committing to a choice and actually moving forward with that choice. 

Abbey: And so, when we talk about decision making and really the spike of struggle that we’ve been hearing from many organizations across industries recently, we’re talking about this both at the individual and the organizational level in terms of decisions that individuals make within their own remits and more organizationally in terms of how decisions are made in the system and to what extent those are happening at pace and quality that the business needs them to. 

Rick: Wow. So, when I think about that, the hardest thing that I see it’s the very last thing you said Libby in your definition of decision making, which is actually taking the action. I see lots of organizations saying, “Hey, this is where we should go,” but then not actually going because marketplace dynamics shift so quickly or budgets’ not really my own anymore or a variety of reasons people have to not take that action. So, I’m wondering if you could potentially go just a little deeper. 

Libby: There’s a lot of factors at play in organizations around making decisions and executing those decisions. And when we look at sort of the external decisions to your point around speed and how quickly the world is changing, AI and ChatGPT have really just taken off and the technology available to enhance decisions continues to evolve rapidly and that means that customer needs are evolving. It means people expect quite a different way of looking at those decisions because of the new tools and resources and the volume of data available in making those decisions. 

Rick: So, I’m curious, when you think about the impact of big data on decision making, how is that playing out in the behaviors of people in these organizations especially with some of the frameworks?  

Libby: So, when we look at people making decisions with this extraordinary amount of data, having access to that data is really important. And we’re seeing in a lot of organizations, people don’t necessarily have the right amount of data available to them. 

They may not have consistent data available to them across the organization, and with things moving as quickly as they are in today’s day and age, if you ran a report yesterday, it may not be relevant today. And I think to some degree that can feed into the “I don’t have enough data” mindset that we can see at the individual level if you know that there is more data out there. A lot of people like to operate in the black and white and so if you are being asked to make a decision in the gray, which means that you’re making a decision with probably incomplete data, that’s really hard for some people. And so how do you get them into a mindset of being more comfortable making decisions, knowing that the data that they have is incomplete, but that it’s sufficient enough to move forward at that point in time? 

Also, it has to do with how reversible the decision is and that’s something that people sometimes struggle with. And so there’s also a need for people at an individual level to see what the magnitude of the decision is that they’re making and adjust the amount of data that they’re using accordingly. 

Abbey: Sometimes even the broader culture around accountability can make the moving to action really challenging for some companies. And I think that the data plays into it as well, but there is also increased, I think, awareness, which is, a great growth factor around harnessing diverse perspectives, but it also can be kind of paralyzing. And I think that’s a challenge that organizations struggle with that also leads to a lack of action in some cases. 

Libby: And one of the things that we’ve seen coming out of the pandemic in a lot of organizations, we’re seeing that because things had to move so swiftly when the world shut down, a lot of the decisions got sucked up into higher levels than they normally would be and now we’re three years down the road, and finding that lot of leaders who’ve grown within that period of time to a place where they are making a lot of decisions, they haven’t had the experience and the, empowerment to make a lot of the decisions that they should have historically been making at their level. So, there’s almost a fatigued muscle around decision making that we’re seeing in a lot of organizations and we’re seeing a lot of companies are really struggling to push decision making back down because of what happened around the world and just the natural way that a lot of organizations had to tackle things. That said, Abbey was just sharing an example of another client who had the exact opposite.  

Abbey: Yeah, I was kind of surprised, but what they shared was, during COVID, we actually did really well and I think we’ve seen a lot of companies that have a strong bias to action or more of a controllership type way of working do really well in crisis situations and that’s what happened for this organization. And they said, we set some clear guardrails, we empowered managers with here are the decisions that are within your control during this period. Here’s what is centralized. Made it super clear. And they said, how do we get back to that? Right. How do we bottle up some of that magic and work like that? All the time? Why can’t we do that? So, I think every organization might experience it a little bit differently because of the norms they’ve built up over time, and what’s happening in their markets. But I think what we’re seeing in general is that it’s just gotten a lot harder.  

Rick: What many companies did organizationally during COVID is they focused on the wellness of their employees at a level that we’ve never seen before and you used the “a” word a couple of times there, accountability, which now people are saying, “we’ve got to go back to a little bit more of a high performing culture.” So, I’m wondering if you can rewind back to some of your first comments, how decision making is both organizational and individual? 

Abbey: What you’re describing is kind of the opposite of the example I shared where this company was able to successfully structure and create the right guardrails for individuals at every level to act with clarity. We’ve codified it really into, if you consider both the individual and the organizational and there are two other sides to the coin. There’s knowing and there’s doing. And on the knowing side, we are talking there about more of the organizational knowing around role clarity and the understanding of the actual structure, the operating model. Whereas on the doing side, for example, for individuals, they also need to be equipped with the right sort of mindset about their own roles, the right sort of beliefs, not be stuck in any imposter syndrome, holdups, for example, that might prevent them from stepping into ownership on a decision that is technically within their remit. But organizationally on the doing side, we build up habits over time based on the culture, based on the behaviors of senior leaders, based on what’s reinforced. But the idea is that organizationally, we also may have a tendency to conflate operational risk with commercial risk and so, making tough commercial decisions that feel risky, feels the same, even though there are really no lives at risk and so that can create behaviors that make decision making really tough. 

Rick: When you’re talking about making decisions in that gray area, is there a model or a tool out there that helps to make that easier?  

Libby: Unfortunately, no. 

Rick: I was afraid you were going to say that.  

Libby: We work with clients who have all sorts of decision-making frameworks and processes in their organization, and it depends on where in an organization’s maturity they are, it depends on where they are geographically, it depends on the culture, like all of these things need to be factored into how an organization is making decisions broadly. And so if you look at some of the standard decision-making frameworks like RACI, like RAPID, they can be helpful, but if you’re solely looking at which model should we implement, it’s simply not enough because it’s not one size fits all. And so, we see a lot of organizations are choosing a model over really looking at what are the mindsets that exist within our organization and how do we shift those to one of more productive decision-making.  

Abbey: Yeah, and to Libby’s point, it can be really helpful, and I don’t want to discount it, the model itself just matters less than first getting super clear on due to this company’s unique context and pain points, what are the focus areas, the things that we really need to shift from a mindset and belief perspective, and that should come first and then the right model can support or fall out of that. The risk is putting the cart before the horse on that with the model being the cart.  

Rick: So given that decision making isn’t one size fits all, and that makes a lot of sense, I’m wondering if you could kind of help us think about the approaches that most people are taking with decision making and where those things are potentially working and also where they’re creating some gaps.  

Libby: A lot of the models that people tend to lean towards, one of the challenges is all of a sudden people can really struggle with when is this model appropriate for the decision that we are making versus, truthfully, I can just go make this decision on my own the magnitude of the decision isn’t that big. And I think people can really struggle with messaging throughout an organization, if we’re implementing this new model, this applies to all decisions and so there’s not a lot of flexibility communicated, and like here’s when we should be using this particular model and here’s how you should think about decision-making when the model is inappropriate.  

Rick: I’m wondering if you could summarize what you’re seeing as the common approaches and help us understand a little bit more around the gaps that those approaches create.  

Abbey: Overall, there are a lot of ways to approach decision making and there are a lot of components to it. And what’s challenging is that no one person in an organization owns it, right? It’s kind of like culture in that way. It really takes a village, takes the whole organization to move the needle on decision making. So, what we do see the best organizations doing is starting with the root cause. But when we’re not quite doing that, some of the most common approaches that are well intended and leave unintended gaps is, for example, the first one, starting with choosing a model right, trying to fix the problem with a model without considering the underlying beliefs, mindsets, norms that the company has held for years that are actually driving the behavior as opposed to the process itself.  

Libby: The challenge with some of these models, whether it’s custom or whether it is one of your off the shelf models, is they can feel a little bit too rigid and they can really slow down decision making within an organization because people aren’t forced to think through or empowered and encouraged to think through where is it appropriate to use this model versus not.  

Rick: So, I guess what I’m hearing you say with these first two is it really is about model or process over outcome and the approach or way of thinking, is that a fair summary? 

Abbey: Yeah, and there’s a third one, I think that fits under that umbrella of common but insufficient approaches, right? Which is if what Libby just described of trying for a one size fits all model is on one end of spectrum, the other end of the spectrum is trying create a custom process for every type of decision and I have seen multiple engineering-based organizations do this, where they gather really rich data and document every type of decision in different functions and then codify. Well, how are these made today? Who’s involved? What are the steps? Let’s re-engineer all of those decision processes. And that is the flip side where we’re going so far into the process realm that we’re losing the people and the behavioral norms that are underneath it.  

Libby: And I think all three of those are really looking at things at the organizational level and the big, gap for all three of those is what’s happening at the individual level and how are we helping to bring people along on the journey and really shift their mindsets to one of more effective decision-making and not just trying to shoehorn into whatever that decision making framework or model is. 

Rick: What I’m hearing you say is that mindset piece, that core belief that there’s a way that I can do better and become significantly more effective, as an individual, potentially in a broader sense for my team and that we’re going to get better organizational results by adopting a different way of thinking and potentially doing, you’re not going to get change. Is that fair?  

Abbey: Yes, and I think Libby, that’s a great point. I actually hadn’t really thought about our findings in that way where the first three are around more of an organizational first approach, which is really valuable, right? It’s an important piece and what we’re saying is the individual matters too. Now on the flip side of that, one of the other four, if you will, common approaches that we’ve seen organizations get stuck on, is the opposite. So, it’s going individual first without looking at the organizational processes and norms. So, for example, this is putting deep dives on decision making into hi-po programs at every level. This is running training sessions for managers on decision making, etc. without adjusting the system around it.  

Libby: So, the fifth finding that we’ve uncovered is that often what we hear from the most senior leaders in an organization is that their VPs down need to get better at decision making. And so similar to the L&D team implementing decision making sessions within programmatic L&D or discrete L&D, they’ll have this VP director population really look at improving their decision making and they make it better at it. However, if the most senior leaders in an organization aren’t also shifting to new ways of making decisions, it’s not going to create the groundswell that was intended through this training, through this development, through this shift in how people are making decisions, and so it’s important that there is ownership of how we make decisions, not just in the VP director population, it has to be at the executive level as well, and that requires a bit of introspection and really saying, okay, what is our role in continuing an unproductive decision making culture? And how do we collectively need to shift to make sure that the people that we are leading are making decisions more effectively? 

Abbey: Yeah, Libby, the executive team can be a linchpin in the changing of decision making more systemically. And I had an experience with a client about a year ago who did some really great work with their VP, their manager of managers population, they raised awareness, they raised knowledge, they raised fluency and empowerment to take ownership of additional decisions and shift the way that things were working. And the challenge was that six or eight months into that, they were trying all these new behaviors, new decision making norms, and they kept running into the same behaviors from their executive team. So decisions they were making were being re litigated, and all that did was raise the frustration level from that senior and mid-level of leader. And the challenge was well intended, the organization wanted to move with speed, right? And reach these critical layers and they didn’t have the opportunity or the access to go deep with the executive team upfront. And so the work proceeded really out of the sake of need, right? They were getting poor feedback on employee survey results about decision making wanted to react quickly and move on it, but ultimately a year and a half later, they needed to go back and re-engage the executive team and do a deep dive with them on it because otherwise the work and the impact was really stalled until they were able to do that. So I’ve seen that from a couple of organizations, similar sort of story play out.  

Rick: What I love so much about the work that you’ve done here is that you focused on what well intended people do but get unintended consequences. Because I think we can all spot bad from a distance, but when we think about where people putting in good, honest effort, but coming up short, you’ve given us some great, great things. Let’s say I am a very well-intended person, but I don’t have the large-scale organizational power to take action today. What are some things that I can do to start to move my team or the broader organization towards making better decisions? 

Libby: If this individual has seen something like a new model being implemented, it’s asking a lot of questions of their more senior leaders around what is being done at the individual level for us to really empower people to make decisions in the right way using this model or a modified version of this model, depending on the size of the decision being made. And so, to really challenge their leaders to think through and help them to understand “how should I be using this in my role?” And I think when it comes to leading their team specifically, how should you personally be thinking about how much data you need? Who needs to be involved? And what is the right amount of time for you to put into that upfront process around the decision making early on? 

Abbey: I think the first step to me is appreciating and acknowledging that decision-making in a system is a collection of individuals taking action or not, right? And so, they do have agency to impact and to influence the change they want to see, at least within their climate of control within that company. 

So, start with, as Libby said, questions I think are critical. Start with well, what are our decision making pain points that myself or our team keeps experiencing time and time again? Why is that happening? What’s the root cause? And what can we do about it? What’s within our remit that we can do something differently and focus on both the individual, the mini system, if you will, of the team or the climate that they’re part of? And consider both the process and the people sides of that equation. And I think they can have surprising impact within their, their own orbit. Might even create a little momentum for the teams around them.  

Rick: Thank you both. I do always love the power of local leadership and I think it’s easy for us to forget, especially in the context of the conversation that we’re having today, where it’s gotta be individual and organizational that sometimes the organization can be small and it can start with my local area of control and, go from there and I’m actually quite excited, we’re already talking about what round two in decision making is gonna look like. So we’ll have Libby and Abbey back to go deeper with us. So, thanks for joining us today we’ll talk to you soon.  

Libby: Thanks, Rick. 

Abbey: Thanks, Rick.  

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